Travelers walk through Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia, Friday, Feb....

Travelers walk through Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia, Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. On Friday, March 15, 2024, the University of Michigan releases its preliminary reading of consumer sentiment for March. Credit: AP/Matt Rourke

WASHINGTON — Consumers became slightly less optimistic about the economy this month, though they continue to expect inflation to cool further, a potential sign that price increases will keep slowing.

The University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment index, released Friday in a preliminary version, slipped to 76.5 in March, barely below February's figure of 76.9. Americans' outlook has essentially remained fixed since January, when it leapt higher. Sentiment is now about halfway between its all-time low, reached in June 2022 when inflation peaked, and its pre-pandemic averages.

Americans' outlook on the economy will likely have a significant effect on the presidential race, which will likely focus heavily on perceptions of President Joe Biden’s economic record.

Friday's consumer sentiment figure follows inflation reports this week that showed that for a second straight month, prices rose at a pace faster than is consistent with the Federal Reserve's 2% target. The consumer price index rose 3.2% in February compared with a year ago, up from 3.1% in January.

Yet the University of Michigan report showed that Americans' outlook for inflation hasn't changed this month compared with February. Consumers expect inflation over the next year to be 3%, the same as in the previous month. And over the next five to 10 years, they expect inflation to be 2.9%, also unchanged from February. While those figures exceed the Fed's inflation target, they're only slightly higher than the pre-pandemic averages.

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