Will Weak Inflation Stay the Fed's Hand?

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Although we don't believe in timing the market or panicking over daily movements, we do like to keep an eye on market changes -- just in case they're material to our investing thesis.

The Federal Reserve began its key meeting this morning as investors anxiously await signs of what the central bank will do with monetary policy. The stock market remains upbeat, with the Dow Jones Industrials posting a 39-point rise as of 12:10 p.m. EDT.

Recently, investors have generally focused on optimistic economic data that shows signs of improving conditions in various sectors of the overall economy. But even though a healthier economy makes it more likely that the Fed will rein in its bond-buying practices, today's reading on the Consumer Price Index could lead those who are worried about potential deflation to put off tapering for a while longer. Let's look at the CPI and why that argument might stay the Fed's hand.

The latest on inflation
August's CPI reading showed a 0.1% increase in consumer prices, bringing the year-over-year price increase in the index to 1.5%. That's below the Fed's nominal 2% inflation target, although the 1.8% annual increase in the core CPI (which excludes food and energy prices) was a bit closer to the desired mark.

Among the factors keeping the index down was a 0.3% drop in energy prices. Gasoline posted only a minimal drop, but a 2.3% fall in natural gas prices helped fuel the overall decline. Cheaper transportation-services costs also helped put downward pressure on the CPI.

But inflation hasn't entirely disappeared from the economy. Medical-care goods and services posted substantial increases of 0.4% and 0.7%, respectively, and medical services in particular have seen inflation of more than 3% since this time last year.

How should you invest for inflation?
For investors, the latest CPI readings lead to some specific takeaways and some bigger-picture conclusions. Health care has been a particularly problematic issue on the cost front for years, and price inflation in the sector has actually slowed recently from historical levels. Greater financial responsibility among consumers has led to decreased spending, and improvements in care quality have led to fewer hospital readmissions. That sounds like it should be bad news for hospital chains Community Health Systems and HCA , but those stocks have actually soared lately. The main reason: Both HCA and Community Health could see big gains in overall admissions if Obamacare leads to an influx of new patients who haven't previously had access to affordable medical care.

Another concern is data on airline fares, which posted their third consecutive monthly decline, falling 3.1%. Admittedly, shares of major airlines Delta Air Lines and United Continental haven't seemed fazed by any pressure on fares, in part because they've done such an effective job of raising revenue through ancillary charges like baggage fees. Passenger demand has also been high, and both Delta and United are adding pilots to their active staff and ordering newer aircraft to bolster efficiency.

What most investors should focus on, though, is the likelihood that a small shortfall in inflation rates below the 2% target probably isn't significant enough to make the Fed change whatever monetary-policy decision it makes. If the CPI were to go flat or negative, though, it could bring louder calls to keep quantitative easing around further into the future.

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The article Will Weak Inflation Stay the Fed's Hand? originally appeared on Fool.com.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. You can follow him on Twitter @DanCaplinger. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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