WASHINGTON -- U.S. consumer prices rose marginally in February, but the lack of inflation pressures will probably not dissuade the Federal Reserve from dialing back its monetary stimulus.
The Labor Department said Tuesday its consumer price index nudged up 0.1 percent as a decline in gasoline prices offset an increase in the cost of food.
The CPI had ticked up 0.1 percent in January and last month's gain was in line with economists' expectations.
In the 12 months through February, consumer prices increased 1.1 percent, slowing from a 1.6 percent rise in January. The February increase was the smallest rise since October last year.
Stripping out the volatile energy and food components, the so-called core CPI also rose 0.1 percent for a third straight month. In the 12 months through February, core CPI rose 1.6 percent after rising by the same margin in January.
Consumer inflation is running below the Fed's 2 percent target, %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%which suggests interest rates will probably remain near record low levels even as the U.S. central bank cuts back on the amount of money it is injecting into the economy each month.
With job growth accelerating and industrial production and consumer spending strengthening, economists expect the Fed to announce another $10 billion reduction to its monthly bond purchases when policymakers end a two-day meeting on Wednesday.
Last month, food prices rose 0.4 percent, the largest increase since September 2011. That accounted for more than half of the increase in the CPI last month.
There were big increases in the prices of meat, fish, poultry, eggs, vegetables and fruits.
Gasoline prices declined for a second month, helping to offset sharp gains in the price of heating oil and natural gas.
Within the core CPI, a 0.2 percent rise in the cost of shelter was the major contributor for the rise in the index. There were also increases in medical care, recreation and new vehicle prices. Prices for tobacco, used cars and trucks, apparel and household furnishings and operations fell.
9 Numbers That'll Tell You How the Economy's Really Doing
U.S. Consumer Inflation Muted Despite Food Price Spike
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.