U.S. consumer prices rose only marginally last month, possibly easing concerns that inflation might be accelerating after a surge in January.
The Labor Department said the consumer price index gained 0.2% in February, reflecting in part a 0.9% drop in gasoline prices and a 0.5% drop in the cost of new cars and trucks, the biggest decline in that category since 2009.
The CPI had risen 0.5% in January, its biggest gain in four years. On a year-over-year basis, it rose 2.2%, a bit ahead of the 2.1% increase reported in January.
As Reuters reports, the strong inflation numbers in January “had sparked fears that price pressures were accelerating, leading financial markets to expect a more aggressive pace of interest rate increases from the Federal Reserve than is currently anticipated.”
Markets currently agree with Fed projections for three rate hikes this year.
“This inflation report likely does little to shift the narrative heading into the March FOMC meeting,” said Ben Ayers, senior economist at Nationwide. “While there is evidence of building inflationary pressures in certain components, the annual growth rates … do not suggest a breakout in inflation yet.”
Core prices, excluding the volatile gas and food categories, have risen at a 3.1% annual rate in the past three months, the largest increase in nine years, and are expected to jump next month because a sharp drop in the cost of cell phone services last year will fall out of the year-over-year data.
“The Federal Reserve wants to see inflation at roughly a 2 percent pace, as a hedge against deflation, which can bring down wages as well as prices,” the Associated Press said. “But the Fed’s preferred inflation gauge has been almost entirely below that target for the past six years.”
Energy prices overall gained just 0.1% in February, while apparel was up 1.5%, the category’s second straight sharp monthly increase.
“Solid domestic economic momentum and the impulse from oncoming fiscal stimulus will underpin a gradual build in inflation toward the Fed’s 2 percent target,” predicted Gregory Daco, chief economist at Oxford Economics.