WASHINGTON -- A sharp drop in gasoline costs led U.S. consumer prices to tumble in April by the most in more than four years, while a gauge of underlying inflation was so weak it could worry the U.S. Federal Reserve.
The Labor Department said Thursday its Consumer Price Index slipped 0.4 percent, the biggest decline since December 2008 when America was suffering some of the darkest days of its financial crisis. Analysts had expected a more modest 0.2 percent decline in last month's prices.
The signs of muted inflation pressures could bolster the case for the Fed to remain on its very easy monetary policy path, despite divisions among policymakers over money printing to buy bonds.
In the 12 months through April, consumer prices rose 1.1 percent. That is well below the Fed's 2 percent inflation goal. The U.S. central bank targets a different gauge of prices that tends to run cooler than the Labor Department's index.
Much of April's decline in prices was fueled by an 8.1 percent dive in gasoline costs, the biggest decline since December 2008.
However, the weakness in the index also extended to a measure of underlying inflation that strips out volatile energy and food prices.
That gauge rose just 0.1 percent, and was up only 1.7 percent from a year earlier. Apparel prices dropped 0.3 percent.
The annual reading for core inflation was at its lowest since June 2011 and could stoke concerns over cooling demand in the U.S. economy, or perhaps even the risk of outright deflation.
Most economists and investors don't think deflation is very likely for America in the coming years, but it would be a central banker's nightmare. Deflation involves spiraling declines in prices and wages and is difficult for policymakers to combat.
9 Numbers That'll Tell You How the Economy's Really Doing
Consumer Prices Tumble in April, Driven Down by Gas Prices
The gross domestic product measures the level of economic activity within a country. To figure the number, the Bureau of Economic Analysis combines the total consumption of goods and services by private individuals and businesses; the total investment in capital for producing goods and services; the total amount spent and consumed by federal, state, and local government entities; and total net exports. It's important, because it serves as the primary gauge of whether the economy is growing or not. Most economists define a recession as two or more consecutive quarters of shrinking GDP.
The CPI measures current price levels for the goods and services that Americans buy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics collects price data on a basket of different items, ranging from necessities like food, clothing and housing to more discretionary expenses like eating out and entertainment. The resulting figure is then compared to those of previous months to determine the inflation rate, which is used in a variety of ways, including cost-of-living increases for Social Security and other government benefits.
The unemployment rate measures the percentage of workers within the total labor force who don't have a job, but who have looked for work in the past four weeks, and who are available to work. Those temporarily laid off from their jobs are also included as unemployed. Yet as critical as the figure is as a measure of how many people are out of work and therefore suffering financial hardship from a lack of a paycheck, one key item to note about the unemployment rate is that the number does not reflect workers who have stopped looking for work entirely. It's therefore important to look beyond the headline numbers to see whether the overall workforce is growing or shrinking.
The trade deficit measures the difference between the value of a nation's imported and exported goods. When exports exceed imports, a country runs a trade surplus. But in the U.S., imports have exceeded exports consistently for decades. The figure is important as a measure of U.S. competitiveness in the global market, as well as the nation's dependence on foreign countries.
Each month, the Bureau of Economic Analysis measures changes in the total amount of income that the U.S. population earns, as well as the total amount they spend on goods and services. But there's a reason we've combined them on one slide: In addition to being useful statistics separately for gauging Americans' earning power and spending activity, looking at those numbers in combination gives you a sense of how much people are saving for their future.
Consumers play a vital role in powering the overall economy, and so measures of how confident they are about the economy's prospects are important in predicting its future health. The Conference Board does a survey asking consumers to give their assessment of both current and future economic conditions, with questions about business and employment conditions as well as expected future family income.
The health of the housing market is closely tied to the overall direction of the broader economy. The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index, named for economists Karl Case and Robert Shiller, provides a way to measure home prices, allowing comparisons not just across time but also among different markets in cities and regions of the nation. The number is important not just to home builders and home buyers, but to the millions of people with jobs related to housing and construction.
Most economic data provides a backward-looking view of what has already happened to the economy. But the Conference Board's Leading Economic Index attempts to gauge the future. To do so, the index looks at data on employment, manufacturing, home construction, consumer sentiment, and the stock and bond markets to put together a complete picture of expected economic conditions ahead.