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Consumer Prices Increase Fuels Inflation Fears

By Nell Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 23, 2005; 1:10 PM

Rising prices for gasoline, fuel oil and natural gas pushed U.S. consumer inflation up in February to its fastest rate in four months, the government reported today.

The figures followed the Federal Reserve's warning yesterday that inflation pressures had picked up recently, a signal that the central bank might have to push interest rates up more aggressively in coming months to keep inflation under control.

_____On the Web_____
Consumer Price Index Summary
_____In Today's Post_____
Fed Again Increases Key Rate By 0.25% (The Washington Post, Mar 23, 2005)

Consumer prices have risen faster than wages for most workers during the past year, which means average weekly earnings have fallen on an inflation-adjusted basis, the Labor Department reported.

The consumer price index, the department's widely followed measure of inflation, rose 0.4 percent last month, up from a 0.1 percent increase in January, primarily because of a 2 percent gain in energy prices.

The CPI rose 3 percent during the 12 months that ended in February, driven in part by a 10.4 percent increase in energy prices.

The inflation figures "suggest that the Fed is right to be more concerned," said Paul Ashworth, senior international economist for Capital Economics Ltd., a research firm in London.

Meanwhile, oil and gasoline prices have jumped since last month. U.S. benchmark crude scheduled for May delivery has traded above $56 a barrel in recent days, up from around $46 a barrel in early February, according to the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The national average price of regular gasoline is $2.11 today, up from $1.89 a month ago, according to the AAA auto club.

Because energy and food prices swing widely from month to month, economists often look at measures that exclude those items to get a sense of underlying or "core" inflation. The core-CPI rose 0.3 percent last month, the fastest rate in five months, and was up 2.4 percent over the last year.

Rising energy prices have left many consumers with less money to spend on other items.

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