Economy

Rents Are Falling. So Why Isn’t That Showing Up in Inflation Data?

The Federal Reserve may have a housing problem. At the very least, it has a housing riddle.

Overall inflation has eased substantially over the past year. But housing has proved a tenacious — and surprising — exception. The cost of shelter was up 6 percent in January from a year earlier, and rose faster on a monthly basis than in December, according to the Labor Department. That acceleration was a big reason for the pickup in overall consumer prices last month.

The persistence of housing inflation poses a problem for Fed officials as they consider when to roll back interest rates. Housing is by far the biggest monthly expense for most families, which means it weighs heavily on inflation calculations. Unless housing costs cool, it will be hard for inflation as a whole to return sustainably to the central bank’s target of 2 percent.

“If you want to know where inflation is going, you need to know where housing inflation is going,” said Mark Franceski, managing director at Zelman & Associates, a housing research firm. Housing inflation, he added, “is not slowing at the rate that we expected or anyone expected.”

Those expectations were based on private-sector data from real estate websites like Zillow and Apartment List and other private companies showing that rents have barely been rising recently and have been falling outright in some markets.

For home buyers, the combination of rising prices and high interest rates has made housing increasingly unaffordable. Many existing homeowners, on the other hand, have been partly insulated from rising prices because they have fixed-rate mortgages with payments that don’t change from month to month.

Housing prices and mortgage rates don’t directly show up in inflation data, however. That’s because buying a home is an investment, not just a consumer purchase like groceries. Instead, inflation data is based on rents. And with private data showing rents moderating, economists have been looking for the slowdown to appear in the government’s data, as well.

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