Core Inflation Slows, Even as Producer Prices Rise
Wholesale prices bolted ahead in May at the fastest pace in six months as energy and food costs marched higher.
Meanwhile, a separate report showed industrial production unexpectedly fell 0.2%.
The Labor Department reported Tuesday that its Producer Price Index, which measures the costs of goods before they reach store shelves, shot up 1.4 percent in May. That was up from a modest 0.2 percent rise in April and marked the biggest increase since November.
However, stripping out energy and food prices, which can swing widely from month to month, the "core" rate of inflation rose 0.2 percent in May, an improvement from the prior month's 0.4 percent increase. That suggested that other prices were fairly well behaved.
The overall inflation rate of 1.4 percent was higher than the 1 percent rise many economists were forecasting. But the increase in core prices matched their expectations.
In other economic news, the Commerce Department reported that housing construction fell 3.3 percent in May as builders pulled back further given the market's slump.
And, the broadest measure of trade, called the current account deficit, increased to $176.4 billion in the first quarter, up from $167.2 billion in the final quarter of last year.
Energy prices jumped 4.9 percent in May, also the biggest rise since November. Diesel fuel prices galloped by 11.2 percent, gasoline prices were up by 9.3 percent and home heating oil increased by 8 percent.
Food prices also rose sharply. They increased by 0.8 percent in May, after being flat in April.
In May prices for pork went up 8 percent, the most since September 1999. Prices for fruits and melons rose 5.9 percent, the most since December. Prices for beef and veal, natural cheese and certain confectionary goods also posted sizable increases.
There are fears that eventually these energy and food costs will force companies to boost prices for lots of other goods and services, spreading inflation through the economy.
Given those concerns, many economists believe the Federal Reserve will hold interest rates steady at 2 percent, a four-year low, when its meets next week.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues have signaled that the Fed's rate-cutting campaign, started last September to shore up economic growth, was over because of growing concerns about inflation.
Wall Street investors and some others predict the Fed will have to boost rates later this year to ward off an inflation flare-up. Others, however, believe the Fed will leave rates alone through the rest of this year. Raising rates too soon, they said, will hurt the fragile economy, which has pounded by housing, credit and financial problems.
Soaring energy and food prices are walloping consumers and businesses alike.
Last week, the government reported that consumer prices leaped by 0.6 percent in May, the biggest increase in six months. Those higher prices also are cutting into workers' paychecks -- further straining budgets.
Businesses, meanwhile, also are tightening the belt. Employers have cut jobs every month so far this year. That's pushed the nation's unemployment rate up to 5.5 percent in May, from 5 percent in April -- the biggest one-month rise in two decades.
Wholesale prices are rising faster than consumer prices because businesses -- for competitive or other reasons -- have been limited in their ability to pass along all of their higher costs from energy and other raw materials to customers.
Elsewhere in the wholesale inflation report, prices for light truck dipped 0.9 percent and prices for cars dropped 1 percent. Cigarette prices rose 2.5 percent and airplane prices increased 1.1 percent, the most since August 2004.
Current Account Deficit Widens
Separately, the U.S. current account deficit widened by a larger-than-expected margin in the first quarter to $176.4 billion from a downwardly revised $167.2 billion in the fourth quarter, the Commerce Department said on Tuesday.
Analysts were expecting the current account gap - the broadest measure of U.S. trade with the rest of the world - to widen slightly to $173.5 billion from the originally-reported $172.9 billion.
The first-quarter current account deficit equaled 5.0 percent of gross domestic product, up from 4.8 percent in the fourth quarter.
Industrial Production Slips 0.2%
U.S. industrial production fell unexpectedly by 0.2 percent in May, the Federal Reserve said Tuesday.
Economists polled by Reuters were expecting a 0.1 percent rise in output at the nation's factories, utilities and mines after a 0.7 percent fall in April.
Manufacturing output was unchanged during the month after a 0.9 percent decrease in April. Total industry capacity use fell to 79.4 percent, the lowest since September 2005, from 79.6 percent.