U.S. Inflation Unchanged in February


Consumer prices in the U.S. were unexpectedly unchanged in February as fuel costs dropped, easing concern that inflation would keep accelerating as the economy slows.

The figure followed a 0.4 percent gain in January, the Labor Department said today in Washington. So-called core prices, which exclude food and energy, also showed no change, the first time they didn't increase since November 2006.

Today's report will make it easier for the Federal Reserve to reduce interest rates again on March 18 in an effort to limit the slump in economic growth. Still, the cost of fuel has jumped again this month, signaling concern over inflation cannot be completely set aside.

Treasuries extended earlier gains after the report, with the 10-year note yielding 3.46 percent at 8:37 a.m. in New York, down 7 basis points from yesterday.

Consumer prices were forecast to rise 0.3 percent, according to the median estimate of 81 economists in a Bloomberg News survey. Estimates ranged from gains of 0.1 percent to 0.5 percent. Prices excluding food and energy were forecast to rise 0.2 percent, according to the survey median.

Consumer prices were up 4 percent in the 12 months to February, after a 4.3 percent year-over-year gain the prior month. The core rate was 2.3 percent, the smallest 12-month gain since October.

Today's report showed energy prices dropped 0.5 percent, the most since August, after a 0.7 percent increase in the prior month. The cost of electricity dropped by the most since December 2005. Gasoline and fuel oil prices also fell, while natural gas expenses jumped.

Inflation is accelerating this month as fuel prices climb. Crude oil on the New York Mercantile Exchange reached a record $111 a barrel this week. The average cost of regular gasoline climbed to $3.27 on March 12, according to AAA, also the highest ever.

The consumer price index is the government's broadest gauge of costs for goods and services. Almost 60 percent of the CPI covers prices that consumers pay for services ranging from medical visits to airline fares and movie tickets.

Price declines were broad-based, signaling companies may be trying to lure customers with discounts as demand wanes. The cost of clothing, automobiles and air fares all dropped.

Other categories registered smaller increases than usual. Medical care costs rose 0.1 percent, the least since March 2007.

Food was one category that continued to show gains. That index, which accounts for about a fifth of the CPI, rose 0.4 and was up at a 6.5 percent pace so far this year. The biggest increase last month was for dairy products.

Rents which, make up almost 40 percent of the core CPI, also rose at a slower pace in February. The worst housing recession in a quarter century is deepening as buyers wait for prices to fall further and lenders make it harder to borrow. A category designed to track rental prices was unchanged.

 


TradingEconomics.com, Bloomberg
3/14/2008 6:45:26 AM