US consumer prices fell for the first time in nearly 1-1/2 years in August and underlying inflation pressures were muted, which could lessen the urgency for the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates.
The Labour Department said on Wednesday its Consumer Price Index dropped 0.2 per cent last month as a broad decline in energy prices offset increases in food and shelter costs.
It was the first decline since April last year and followed a 0.1 per cent gain in July. Economists had forecast consumer prices being flat in August.
“There is still enough slack in the economy to keep a tight lid on price increases, which should support the view of those within the Fed arguing in favor of patience before the first rate hike,” said Anthony Karydakis, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak in New York.
The CPI increased 1.7 per cent in the 12 months through August, the smallest advance in five months, after rising two per cent in July.
Inflation has cooled somewhat after an acceleration in the second quarter, which had fanned speculation of an early interest rate hike from the Fed.
Stripping out food and energy prices, the so-called core CPI was unchanged last month for the first time since October 2010 after nudging up 0.1 per cent in July.
In the 12 months through August, the core CPI rose 1.7 per cent, slowing down from July’s 1.9 per cent increase. It was also the smallest gain since March.
The Fed targets two per cent inflation and it tracks an index that is running even lower than the CPI.
The dollar slipped against a basket of currencies on the data, while prices for US government debt rose marginally. US stocks were trading higher.
The CPI report was released ahead of the conclusion of the US central bank’s two-day policy meeting. The Fed was scheduled to release its policy statement at 2pm (1800GMT), which will be watched for signals on the timing of the first interest rate increase.
Many economists think the Fed could raise interest rates as soon as June of next year, while interest rate futures point to July for the first rate hike. It has kept its benchmark overnight lending rate near zero since December 2008.
While the economy appears to be on sustainable growth path, anemic wage growth is dampening price pressures. Average hourly earnings adjusted for inflation increased 0.4 per cent in August. They were up only 0.4 per cent compared to August last year.
A second report showed homebuilder sentiment jumped to its highest level in nearly nine years in September, with builders reporting a sharp pickup in buyer traffic since early summer.
The surge in confidence underscores the economy’s firming fundamentals. For now, however, inflation remains tame.
In August, energy prices fell for a second straight month and recorded their biggest decline since March 2013. There were broad declines in energy prices, with gasoline plunging 4.1 per cent after declining 0.3 per cent in July. Food prices rose 0.2 per cent after advancing 0.4 per cent in July as the effects of a drought in California linger.Rents increased 0.2 per cent last month after rising 0.3 per cent in July.
Another report on Wednesday showed the current-account deficit unexpectedly shrank in the second quarter. The gap, the broadest measure of international trade because it includes income payments and government transfers, narrowed 3.5 per cent to $98.5 billion from a revised $102.1 billion shortfall in the prior period, according to Commerce Department figures. The median forecast of economists in a Bloomberg survey called for the deficit to widen to $113.4 billion.
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