Energy costs push US consumer inflation higher as Fed meets


Washington (AFP)

Mounting energy costs helped drive US consumer prices higher in November, according to government data released Wednesday, but analysts said the report did not show a clear upward trend in inflation.

The Federal Reserve is widely expected to raise benchmark interest rates at its final meeting of 2017 later on Wednesday, the third rate hike in a year marked by perplexingly weak inflation.

In the latest report, falling prices for clothing and medical care as well as stagnant costs for food and rent again portrayed an economy where inflation remains meek despite a steadily tightening labor market and record low unemployment.

"Overall, these data won't change the outcome of the Fed meeting today, and they don't change our view that the rise to core inflation over the next year is to the upside," said economist Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics.

But he acknowledge in a client note that an unambiguous sign of the return of inflation was "yet to be established."

The Consumer Price Index, which tracks costs for household goods and services, gained 0.4 percent last month compared to October, in line with analysts' expectations. But three-quarters of the November increase was due to rising energy prices, which rose 3.9 percent, as the price of gasoline at the pump surged 7.3 percent compared to October.

The 12-month measure rose 2.2 percent, putting it above the Fed's two percent inflation target, although the Fed focuses on a different price index.

- Fed debate persists -

But excluding food and fuel, the "core" CPI undershot expectations, gaining only 0.1 percent in November, while the 12-month core actually slowed to 1.7 percent, down a tenth from October.

Doctors' fees fell 0.8 percent, and airfares dove 2.4 percent despite the start of the holiday season, while apparel prices fell 1.3 percent -- the biggest drop since 1998. But new cars gained 0.3 percent, which still left autos down 1.1 percent below their year-ago prices.

The November result was unlikely to settle the disagreement among Fed officials about whether inflation finally is set to accelerate after months of weakness.

The Fed's preferred inflation measure, the Personal Consumption Expenditures price index, remains well below the two percent target and shows few signs it will rise soon. The 12-month core measure for PCE was just 1.4 percent in October.

And while the 12-month CPI measure exceeded two percent for the second time since April, some argue it should be allowed to run higher for some time to compensate for its extended weakness.

The Fed had largely written off weak inflation this year as the product of "transitory" factors such as sudden drops in pharmaceutical and mobile telephone service prices.

But Fed chair Janet Yellen has acknowledged that the central bank's understanding of the forces driving inflation is not perfect.