Consumer prices rose 0.2 percent last month, as widespread moderate price increases promised a fourth consecutive year of modest inflation.
The Consumer Price Index in January increased at a 2.3 percent annual rate and was 3.6 percent higher than the year before, the Labor Department said. Consumer prices rose 0.3 percent in December.
In a separate report, the Commerce Department said that factory orders for durable goods rose 3.8 percent in January, but orders for capital goods, excluding defense, plummeted 11.5 percent, continuing the recent poor performance of the capital goods industry.
Economists said that the nondefense capital goods numbers reflected a slowdown in business spending as well as an increase of imported equipment made relatively cheaper by the rising value of the dollar.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said the consumer price report was "particularly good news at this stage of the business expansion."
"The CPI this morning and the producer price index out recently provide good news for our economic future," Speakes said. "Prices are down and staying down. The recovery has been sustained since November 1982, and the hallmark has been low inflation."
"What we're continuing to get is really, really good numbers," said Steven Woods, an economist with Chase Econometrics. "There are no pressures in the economy for upward inflation. I expect it to continue."
Just as the strong dollar has helped weaken the capital goods industry, it has been a major reason for the moderation in inflation, economists said. In a recent report, economist Allen Sinai of Shearson Lehman Brothers Inc. said that "inflation prospects remain bright" as demand pressures have remained subdued. In addition, small wage gains and increased productivity have kept unit labor costs from rising rapidly, and no shortages or bottlenecks have occurred in the production pipeline.
In addition, worldwide oil prices remain weak, resulting in inflation being about 1 percentage point lower this year than it otherwise would be. "A continuing strong dollar also helps to sustain low inflation, affecting prices directly through purchases of goods and services abroad and indirectly because of strong competition from foreign producers," Sinai said.
The consumer price index was 316.1 last month. Another price index, for urban wage earners and clerical workers, increased 0.1 percent in January to 312.6. This measure is used for indexing Social Security and some other federal payments and is commonly used as an escalator in collective bargaining agreements.
The CPI increase in January was the same as the monthly average increase during the fourth quarter last year, the Labor Department said. Since September 1981, consumer prices have risen an average 0.3 percent a month, Labor said.
Food and beverage prices rose 0.2 percent in January, following a 0.4 percent rise in December, Labor said. Food bought in grocery stores rose slightly more, increasing 0.3 percent. Prices rose sharply for fresh fruits and vegetables while meat and egg prices declined. However, prices for pork, poultry and fish rose for the second consecutive month, Labor said.
Housing costs increased 0.1 percent in January, after rising 0.2 percent in December. The index for fuel and other utilities dropped for the second consecutive month, largely because fuel oil prices declined 2.9 percent. Fuel oil prices last month were 15.4 percent below their peak level in April 1981.
However, prices for electricity and natural gas, which had decreased in the fourth quarter, increased 0.5 percent and 0.2 percent, respectively, last month.
Gasoline prices continued their decline, dropping 1.4 percent in January. Gasoline prices last month were 15.2 percent below their peak level in March 1981. New car prices rose 0.3 percent and costs of used cars increased 1.8 percent, Labor said. Automobile insurance prices rose for the fourth consecutive month, increasing 1.5 percent in January.