The 0.1 percent gain in the consumer price index was in line with expectations and followed no change in February, the Labor Department reported today in Washington. Excluding food and fuel, the so-called core rate held steady after rising 0.1 percent in February, reflecting cheaper rents and clothing.
Retailers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Home Depot Inc. are offering discounts to attract consumers coping with a 9.7 percent rate of unemployment and rising foreclosures. An absence of price pressures is one reason why Federal Reserve policy makers last month pledged to keep the benchmark interest rate near zero in coming months to fuel the economy.
In the 12 months ended in March, prices rose 2.3 percent following a 2.1 percent year-over-year gain the prior month. Economists had forecast a 2.4 percent rise in the 12 months to March, according to the survey median.
The core rate increased 1.1 percent from March 2009, after a 1.3 percent year-over-year increase the prior month. The gain during the 12 months to March was the smallest since 2004.
Compared with a month earlier, energy costs were unchanged. Gasoline prices dropped 0.8 percent and natural gas prices fell 0.7 percent.
Food prices, which account for about 15 percent of the CPI, rose 0.2 percent, reflecting higher costs for fruits, vegetables and meat.
New vehicle prices rose 0.1 percent and clothing costs fell 0.4 percent. The price of airfares rose 0.4 percent while the cost of medical care increased 0.3 percent.
Some restraints on the cost of living are unlikely to reverse soon. Owners-equivalent rent, one of the categories designed to track rental prices, fell 0.1 percent. Compared with March 2009, owners-equivalent rent was unchanged.
Hourly wages decreased 0.2 percent after adjusting for inflation, the biggest drop since June 2009, and were down 0.6 percent over the last 12 months.
The CPI is the broadest of three monthly price gauges from Labor, because it includes goods and services. Almost 60 percent of the CPI covers prices consumers pay for services ranging from medical visits to airline fares and movie tickets.