Rising prices for gasoline, fuel oil and natural gas pushed U.S. consumer inflation up in February to its fastest rate in four months.
WASHINGTON — Rising prices for gasoline, fuel oil and natural gas pushed U.S. consumer inflation up in February to its fastest rate in four months, the government reported yesterday.
The figures followed the Federal Reserve’s warning Tuesday that inflation pressures had picked up recently, a signal that the central bank might have to push interest rates up more aggressively in coming months to keep inflation under control.
Consumer prices have risen faster than wages for most workers during the past year, which means average weekly earnings have fallen on an inflation-adjusted basis, the Labor Department reported.
The consumer price index, the department’s widely followed measure of inflation, rose 0.4 percent last month, up from a 0.1 percent increase in January, primarily because of a 2 percent gain in energy prices.
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The inflation figures “suggest that the Fed is right to be more concerned,” said Paul Ashworth, senior international economist for Capital Economics Ltd., a research firm in London.
Meanwhile, oil and gasoline prices have jumped since last month. U.S. benchmark crude scheduled for May delivery has traded above $56 a barrel in recent days, up from around $46 a barrel in early February, according to the New York Mercantile Exchange.
The national average price of regular gasoline is $2.11 today, up from $1.89 a month ago, according to the AAA auto club.
Because energy and food prices swing widely from month to month, economists often look at measures that exclude those items to get a sense of underlying or “core” inflation. The core-CPI rose 0.3 percent last month, the fastest rate in five months, and was up 2.4 percent over the last year.
Rising energy prices have left many consumers with less money to spend on other items.
After adjusting for inflation, average weekly wages for production and non-managerial workers fell 0.4 percent last month, and dropped 0.8 percent during the 12 months that ended in February, the department said. Those employees account for about 80 percent of the labor force.
Some economists warn that rising energy prices may cause the economy to slow suddenly this spring, just as it did last summer — which might restrain inflation by making it harder for businesses to pass their costs on to consumers.
“With household savings rates already at their lowest levels since 1933 and debt levels at record highs, today’s wage data implies a slowing, perhaps sharply, in consumer spending growth in the months ahead,” said C.W. McMillion, chief economist with MBG Information Services, a Washington, D.C., advisory firm.
The economy has been growing rapidly so far this year, at about a 4.5 percent annual rate according to some estimates, fueled by strong consumer spending and business investment.
The Fed raised its benchmark federal funds rate, the overnight rate on loans between banks, to 2.75 percent from 2.5 percent Tuesday, and it indicated that more increases lie ahead.