US consumer prices likely fell in December, pushed down by steep plunge in energy costs

MarketsAssociated Press

The Labor Department reports on consumer prices for December. The report will be issued at 8:30 a.m. EST.

PRICES DOWN: The expectation is that prices dropped 0.4 percent in December, according to a survey of economists by data firm FactSet. The economists were looking for core prices, excluding volatile energy and food, to edge up a slight 0.1 percent in December.

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LOW INFLATION: Over the 12 months ending in November, overall inflation has risen just 1.3 percent while core inflation has increased 1.7 percent.

Inflation has slowed even more in recent months because of the big drop in energy prices, which has sent gas prices lower, and the rising value of the dollar against other currencies, which lowers the price of foreign-made goods.

Oil, which had been trading for more than $100 per barrel last summer is now going for less than half that. The big plunge has lowered prices at the pump to a nationwide average of $2.09, according to AAA, down from $2.55 a gallon just one month ago.

Even before the big drop in global oil prices, inflation has been running levels well below the 2 percent that the Federal Reserve sees as an optimal annual increase for prices. That has given the Fed leeway to keep a key interest rate at a record low to boost economic growth.

The Fed in December said that it intended to be "patient" about raising interest rates, supporting the view among many economists that the first rate increase will not occur until June at the earliest.

That view is not unanimous however. Other analysts point to strong job gains that pushed unemployment down to 5.6 percent in December, close to the Fed's 5.2 percent to 5.5 percent target.