Consumer prices rose a slim 0.1 percent last month, the Labor Department reported yesterday, capping a year in which inflation rose at a 4.4 percent rate.
The report indicated that inflation was slowing in the latter half of 1987 and is likely to remain relatively moderate in 1988, economists said.
But in a less-welcome development, the Commerce Department said that housing starts fell 16 percent in December. That report put a damper on recent speculation that the economy is emerging unscathed from the Oct. 19 stock market plunge.
The 4.4 percent inflation rate for 1987 was considerably higher than the 1.1 percent rate recorded in 1986. It was also higher than any year since 1981, when the consumer price index rose 8.9 percent.
But the 1986 inflation rate was depressed by the plunge in oil prices. Yesterday's report showed that when energy costs are excluded, inflation has been remarkably steady over the past six years.
With energy factored out, the CPI rose 4.2 percent in 1982, 4.4 percent in 1983, 4.5 percent in 1984, 4 percent in 1985, 3.8 percent in 1986, and 4.1 percent in 1987.
The report also showed that inflation moderated in 1987 as the impact of a rebound in oil prices wore off. For all items, including energy, the CPI rose at an annual rate of 5.4 percent in the first six months of 1987, and at a 3.4 percent pace in the following six months.
Costs for nonenergy items rose more slowly as the year wore on, too. Excluding energy, the CPI rose at a 4.6 percent rate in the first half of 1987, and at a 3.6 percent rate in the second half.
Inflation will probably proceed at a 3 percent rate in the first half of 1988, and then speed up to about 5 percent as a result of the decline in the dollar, which makes imports more expensive, said Donald Ratajczak, director of the Economic Forecasting Center at Georgia State University. Another factor that may cause an acceleration in inflation, he said, is that "wages are gradually creeping up -- not flying up, but creeping up."
Food and beverage prices rose a strong 0.5 percent in December, attributable in part to a record 72 percent increase in the price of lettuce. A shortage caused by the white-fly virus has more than doubled lettuce prices in the past two months.
Also rising appreciably in December was the cost of tuition, which was up 7.6 percent.