Consumer Inflation Edged Up in February on Oil Prices

By Daniel Indiviglio

Rising oil prices continued to drive up inflation in February. The Consumer Price Index rose by 0.5% during the month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's the most since June 2009. Because core inflation -- which strips out energy and food -- rose by just 0.2%, the recent increases aren't worrying the Federal Reserve. The trend shows that inflation is clearly on the rise, however.

Let's start with some history on CPI:

cpi 2011-02.png

The trend since December might not look that significant, but it's the highest three-month average since June through August 2008. Inflation is definitely on an upward trend.

That's mostly due to energy and food prices, however. Energy prices rose by 3.4% in February, which was due in large part to gasoline. As you likely noticed at the pump, gas prices were way up last month, by 4.7%. Food prices were also significantly higher, rising by 0.6% in February.

But when you take those out of the equation, core CPI remained relatively low:

core cpi 2011-02.png

At 0.2%, these prices aren't exactly soaring. But they're rising more quickly than they were throughout 2010. In fact, you have to go back to the fall of 2009 to find two consecutive months of core prices increasing by 0.2% or more, like we've seen in 2011.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also provides a picture of longer-term trends:

cpi 12-month 2011-02.png

Since late last year, both regular CPI (blue) and core (red) are clearly rising for the trailing 12 months. The 12-month changes still both remain below levels seen early last year, however.

Will this data make the Fed blink? It's currently just over halfway through its latest round of asset purchases, which was started in part because it worried that inflation was too low. According to its monthly monetary policy meeting statement from earlier this week, however, its plans aren't likely to change. The Fed mostly looks at core CPI to evaluate inflation trends. Since that measure maintained the same rate seen in January, the Fed's outlook for inflation isn't likely to change much either.

If we begin to see energy and food prices rising for a prolonged period, they will begin to affect the costs of other goods and services. It's only a matter of time before producers and retailers feel like they must increase their prices more aggressively, in response to more expensive energy. So unless food and energy prices fall in coming months, we can expect to see core CPI rise more aggressively eventually. The Fed will likely start up its exit strategy at that time, unless Japan's catastrophe and gasoline prices throw off the U.S. recovery. If the economy takes a step back, the central bank could provide even more monetary support.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/03/consumer-inflation-edged-up-in-february-on-oil-prices/72596/