US consumer prices unchanged in January

Economic IndicatorsReuters

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WASHINGTON, (Reuters) - U.S. consumer prices were unchanged for a third straight month in January, leading to the smallest annual increase in inflation in more than 1-1/2 years, which could allow the Federal Reserve to hold interest rates steady for a while.

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The Labor Department said on Wednesday its Consumer Price Index last month was held down by cheaper gasoline, which offset increases in the cost of food and rents.

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In the 12 months through January, the CPI rose 1.6 percent, the smallest gain since June 2017. The CPI increased 1.9 percent on a year-on-year basis in December.

Excluding the volatile food and energy components, the CPI gained 0.2 percent, rising by the same margin for a fifth straight month. In the 12 months through January, the so-called core CPI rose 2.2 percent for a third straight month.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the CPI edging up 0.1 percent in January and the core CPI rising 0.2 percent.

The steady increases in the core CPI likely do not signal a material shift in underlying inflation. The Fed, which has a 2 percent inflation target, tracks a different measure, the core personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index, for monetary policy.

The core PCE price index increased 1.9 percent on a year-on-year basis in November after rising 1.8 percent in October. It hit 2 percent in March last year for the first time since April 2012.

The December PCE price data will be released on March 1. It was delayed by a five-week partial shutdown of the federal government that ended on Jan. 25.

The Fed kept interest rates unchanged last month and removed from its December policy statement promises of "further gradual increases" in borrowing costs. The U.S. central bank said it would be "patient" before making further rate hikes.

With the January inflation report, the government started quality adjusting the CPI series related to telecommunications services such as land-line telephones, internet, cable and satellite television, to account for the rapid technological change.

Inflation is remaining moderate despite a tightening labor market, in part because of slowing economic growth in China and Europe, which is helping to lower oil prices.

In January, gasoline prices fell 5.5 percent after dropping 5.8 percent in December. Food prices increased 0.2 percent after advancing 0.3 percent in December. Food consumed at home edged up 0.1 percent last month.

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Owners' equivalent rent of primary residence, which is what a homeowner would pay to rent or receive from renting a home, increased 0.3 percent in January after gaining 0.2 percent in the prior month.

Healthcare costs rose 0.2 percent after advancing 0.3 percent in December. Apparel prices jumped 1.1 percent last month, the biggest increase since February 2018. There were also increases in the prices of new motor vehicles. Airline fares dropped 0.9 percent.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani Editing by Paul Simao)