US Consumer Price Index rose 0.3% in Dec, as expected

Linda Wentzel shops for clothing at a Costco Wholesale store in East Peoria, Illinois.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

U.S. consumer prices rose in December as households paid more for gasoline and rental accommodation, leading to the largest year-on-year increase in 2-1/2 years and signaling that inflation pressures could be building.

Other data on Wednesday showed U.S. industrial production recording its biggest increase in two years. Rising inflation and stronger economic growth, if sustained, may push the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates at a faster pace than currently anticipated.

"Further momentum in consumer prices could add to the perception of a more hawkish Fed and the potential for more aggressive tightening," said Jim Baird, chief investment officer at Plante Moran Financial Advisors in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

The Labor Department said its Consumer Price Index rose 0.3 percent last month after a 0.2 percent gain in November. In the 12 months through December, the CPI increased 2.1 percent, the biggest year-on-year rise since June 2014. The CPI rose 1.7 percent in the year to November.

The gains were in line with economists' expectations. The CPI increased 2.1 percent in 2016, up from a gain of 0.7 percent in 2015.

The dollar rose against a basket of currencies on the inflation data, while prices for U.S. government bonds fell. U.S. stocks were trading mostly higher.

The so-called core CPI, which strips out food and energy costs, rose 0.2 percent last month after the same increase in November. As a result, the core CPI was up 2.2 percent in the 12 months through December, from 2.1 percent in November.

The Fed has a 2 percent inflation target and tracks an inflation measure which is currently at 1.6 percent. Rising wages due to a tightening labor market also is contributing to higher inflation.

Average hourly earnings increased in December at their quickest pace since June 2009, a government report showed earlier this month.

Price pressures are likely to remain on an upward trend amid expectations of fiscal stimulus from the incoming Trump administration. Republican businessman-turned-politician Donald Trump, who will be sworn in as U.S. president on Friday, has pledged to increase infrastructure spending and cut taxes.

"As the labor market continues to tighten, we expect businesses, particularly in the labor-intensive service sector, to pass on a greater share of cost increases and generate higher inflation," said Sarah House, an economist at Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The U.S. central bank has forecast three rate hikes this year. It raised its benchmark overnight interest rate by 25 basis points to a range of 0.50 percent to 0.75 percent last month.

Gasoline prices climb

Underscoring the economy's momentum, a separate report from the Fed on Wednesday showed industrial production rose 0.8 percent in December. That was the biggest gain in industrial output since November 2014.

Output was driven by a surge in the utilities production as well as an increase in manufacturing.

"The small gain in manufacturing, the third of the past four months, is a positive sign from a sector that has moved sideways over much of the past two years," said Andrew Labelle, an economist at Citigroup in New York. "The pickup in commodity prices is clearly providing a lift to manufacturing."

The consumer inflation report showed gasoline prices climbed 3.0 percent last month after advancing 2.7 percent in November.

Housing also continued its upward march in December. Rental costs increased 0.3 percent last month, with owners' equivalent rent of primary residence also rising 0.3 percent. Rents jumped 4.0 percent in 2016.

Consumers also paid more for health care last month. The cost of medical care rose 0.2 percent as did the cost of prescription medicine, while prices paid for hospital services jumped 0.3 percent.

There were also price increases for a range of other goods and services. The cost of motor vehicle insurance increased 0.8 percent and airline fares rose 1.9 percent after falling 1.3 percent in November.

Prices for used cars and trucks increased 0.5 percent.

But households got some respite at supermarkets and department stores. Food prices were unchanged for a sixth straight month, with the cost of food consumed at home dropping for an eighth consecutive month. Apparel prices fell for a second straight month in December.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to show that the CPI increased 2.1 percent in the 12 months through December, not October.