U.S. Consumer Prices Rose 0.1% in December

By Ben Leubsdorf and Sarah Chaney Features Dow Jones Newswires

U.S. consumer prices rose in December, a sign that inflation ended the year on a somewhat stronger note.

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The consumer-price index, which measures changes in the prices Americans pay for everything from breakfast sausage to doctor visits, increased a seasonally adjusted 0.1% in December from the prior month, the Labor Department said Friday. That small gain matched economists' expectations.

Prices rose 0.3% in December when excluding the often-volatile categories of food and energy, the largest increase for so-called core prices since January 2017. Economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal had expected core prices would rise a more modest 0.2% versus November.

Overall prices climbed 2.1% in December compared with a year earlier, easing a bit from November's 2.2% annual gain. Prices excluding food and energy were up 1.8% from the end of 2016, firming slightly from the prior month's annual increase.

Prices rose in December from the prior month for food, shelter, medical care and motor vehicles. Prices were down from November for gasoline and clothing.

In a separate report Friday, the Labor Department said inflation-adjusted average weekly earnings for private-sector workers rose 0.2% in December from the prior month, as wages grew faster than prices and the average workweek was unchanged.

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U.S. inflation has been largely subdued for the past half-decade, perplexing Federal Reserve officials who predicted a tightening labor market and continued economic growth would generate stronger wage and price increases. The unemployment rate in December was 4.1%, remaining at its lowest level in 17 years, according to Labor Department data.

Still, many investors and central bankers say inflation is poised to strengthen. The yield on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury note closed above 2.5% earlier this week for the first time since March.

"We continue to believe that this year's surprising softness in inflation primarily reflects transitory developments that are largely unrelated to broader economic conditions," Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen said in mid-December. "As a result, we still expect inflation will move up and stabilize around 2% over the next couple of years."

One of those one-off factors that has been holding down annual price growth: a drop last spring in prices for cell-phone plans, at least partly due to wireless providers offering unlimited-data plans. That effect should wash out of the 12-month change in prices later this year.

Still, some economists and Fed policy makers worry long-sluggish price growth could continue into the new year and might reflect broader problems, such as a deterioration in households' expectations for future inflation.

"I am concerned that persistent factors are holding down inflation, rather than idiosyncratic transitory ones," Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago President Charles Evans said last month after he dissented from the Fed's decision to raise short-term interest rates for a third time in 2017.

Fed officials in December penciled in three additional quarter-percentage-point increases in their benchmark federal-funds rate for 2018, and private-sector forecasters think their next rate increase will likely come in March.

The U.S. central bank also is in the midst of a leadership transition; Ms. Yellen's term ends in early February and President Donald Trump has nominated Jerome Powell, a current Fed governor, as her successor. He is awaiting Senate confirmation.

The Fed's 2% annual inflation target is based on their preferred price measure, the Commerce Department's personal consumption expenditures price index. The PCE price index was up 1.8% in November from a year earlier, and prices excluding food and energy rose 1.5% on the year.

The Labor Department's latest report on the consumer-price index can be accessed at: https://www.bls.gov/news.release/cpi.nr0.htm

Write to Ben Leubsdorf at ben.leubsdorf@wsj.com and Sarah Chaney at sarah.chaney@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 12, 2018 08:45 ET (13:45 GMT)