The consumer price index rose 0.3 percent, as forecast, after dropping 0.8 percent in December, Labor Department figures showed today in Washington. Excluding food and fuel, the so- called core rate climbed 0.2 percent, more than anticipated, reflecting gains in autos, clothing, and medical care.
The price gains may not stick as more companies follow Wal- Mart Stores Inc. and Macy’s Inc. in offering discounts as the economy sinks into what may be the worst recession in the postwar era. Some Federal Reserve policy makers have expressed concern at the risk that the deceleration in prices may give way to deflation, or a prolonged drop that hurts lenders and profits.
“There’s no sense that we’ll see a major acceleration anytime soon” in inflation, said Jonathan Basile, an economist at Credit Suisse Holdings in New York, before the report. “Demand is still depressed in the U.S. and globally. There are continued worries about the downside risk to prices.”
Treasuries, which had risen earlier in the day, remained higher after the report. Yields on benchmark 10-year notes dipped to 2.79 percent at 8:33 a.m. in New York from 2.86 percent late yesterday. Futures on the Standard & Poor’s 500 Stock Index lost 1.7 percent to 766.10.
The projected gain was based on the median forecast of 71 economists in a Bloomberg News survey. Estimates ranged from a gain of 0.6 percent to a drop of 0.6 percent. Costs excluding food and energy, known as core prices, were projected to rise 0.1 percent.
Consumer prices were unchanged over the last 12 months, the least since 1955. The core rate climbed 1.7 percent from January 2008, the smallest gain since March 2004.
Energy expenses rose 1.7 percent, led by a 6 percent increase in gasoline prices. The fuel’s price fell 50 percent in the last three months of 2008.
The CPI is the broadest of the 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.
Food prices, which account for about a fifth of the CPI, increased 0.1 percent.
New vehicle prices climbed 0.3 percent, the most in three years, and clothing costs also rose 0.3 percent. The cost of medical care increased 0.4 percent.
Rents which, make up almost 40 percent of the core CPI, also accelerated. A category designed to track rental prices climbed 0.3 percent.
Plummeting sales at General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC may keep vehicle prices depressed.
Houston-based Group 1 Automotive Inc., the owner of 100 U.S. and U.K. car dealerships, said yesterday it posted a fourth- quarter net loss, will cut 1,450 jobs and suspended its dividend. Tight credit continues to make it difficult for some consumers to buy vehicles, Chief Executive Officer Earl Hesterberg said in an interview.
“All the brands are pretty much created equally,” he said. “They’re all suffering.”
Macy’s, Kohl’s Corp. and AnnTaylor Stores Corp. last month offered discounts of as much as 70 percent, while low-priced food and drugs helped lift purchases at Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer.
Starbucks Corp., the world’s largest chain of coffee shops, is trying other ways to lure cash-strapped customers. It began selling $3.95 breakfast meals and will introduce Via instant coffee, at $2.95 for a packet of three individual servings.
Economists caution that disinflation could lead to outright deflation, which erodes profits and makes debts harder to repay. Still, others worry that in the longer term, the unprecedented fiscal stimulus and the Fed’s policy of buying more assets and pumping money into the financial system will reignite inflation.
Fed officials introduced long-term inflation estimates, with most favoring a 2 percent rate, according to minutes of their January meeting released this week.
The step should “help to better stabilize the public’s inflation expectations, thus contributing to keeping actual inflation from rising too high or falling too low,” Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said in a Feb. 18 speech in Washington. “We expect inflation to be quite low for some time.”
Other labor reports this week showed the cost of goods imported into the U.S. fell in January for a sixth consecutive month and wholesale prices rose 0.8 percent in January, more than anticipated, as fuel prices climbed.