Low inflation gives Fed room to keep rates down
AP Economics Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) – The Federal Reserve seems likely to keep interest rates at record lows for several more months after news Friday that consumer prices excluding food and energy fell in January.
It was the first time such prices have fallen in any month since 1982.
The tame report on consumer prices sent a positive signal to investors and borrowers. It suggested that short-term rates can remain low to strengthen the economic recovery without triggering inflation.
Some have worried that a Fed rate increase affecting consumers and businesses might be imminent, especially after it just raised the rate banks pay for emergency loans.
Friday’s news helped reassure financial markets. The Dow Jones industrial average rose about 9 points, or 0.1 percent. Broader stock averages also gained modestly. Bond prices rose, pushing yields lower.
The Fed has kept a key bank lending rate at a record low near zero since December 2008. The goal is to entice consumers and businesses to boost spending.
Many analysts said the consumer-price report reinforced their view that the earliest the Fed will start raising rates is the fall. Some said the central bank might wait until the end of this year or early next year before raising its target for the federal funds rate. That’s the rate banks charge for overnight loans.
“Rate hikes remain unlikely until late 2010 or early 2011,” Eric Lascelles, an economist at TD Securities, wrote in a research note.
Overall consumer prices edged up 0.2 percent in January, the Labor Department said. But excluding volatile food and energy, prices fell 0.1 percent. That drop, the first monthly decline since December 1982, reflected falling prices for housing, new cars and airline fares.
The news was better than expected, especially after the government said Thursday that inflation at the wholesale level, excluding food and energy, rose 0.3 percent in January. That was faster than the 0.1 percent increase economists had predicted.
Chairman Ben Bernanke has said the Fed will likely start to tighten credit by raising the rate it pays banks on money they leave at the central bank. Doing so would raise rates tied to commercial banks’ prime rate and affect many consumer loans. That would mark a shift away from the federal funds rate, its main lever since the 1980s.
The Fed announced late Thursday that it was boosting the rate banks pay for emergency loans by a quarter-point to 0.75 percent. That rate is called the discount rate .
The announcement of the discount rate increase initially roiled global financial markets. Investors feared it could be a signal that the Fed might start raising consumer and business rates because of inflation fears. The Fed increases rates to slow the economy and keep inflation pressures from rising too much.
But Friday’s report of benign consumer prices calmed the initial market jitters. It solidified economists’ belief that the central bank is still months away from any rate change that would directly affect consumers.
“The economy is still suffering from major problems,” said Sal Guatieri, an economist at BMO Capital Markets. “The Fed is going to err on the side of keeping policy loose because of the high unemployment rate and the minimal risk that inflation will move higher over the next couple of years.”
Guatieri said he thought September was the most likely time for the Fed to start boosting rates. Others predicted it would take longer.
Economists say inflation will remain tepid as the economy struggles to sustain a rebound from the deep recession. High unemployment is keeping a lid on wage gains. And consumer spending is being constrained by the weak income growth. Businesses don’t have the ability to raise prices.
Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Economy.com, said he thinks the Fed will start raising rates in December. But he said that could easily slip into next year, if joblessness remains high.
“I don’t see them raising interest rates until the unemployment rate is headed lower on a sustained basis,” Zandi said.
Zandi thinks the jobless rate, which dropped to 9.7 percent last month, will begin rising again and peak around 10.5 percent late in the year before starting to decline in 2011.
David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor’s in New York, said the Fed’s decision on when to start raising rates could be complicated by the November congressional elections.
“The Fed usually doesn’t like to start raising interest rates in the midst of an election campaign,” Wyss said.
The 0.2 percent rise in overall consumer prices reflected a 2.8 percent jump in energy costs. That’s the biggest one-month gain since August. Energy prices were driven by a 4.4 percent rise in gasoline pump prices and a 3.5 percent increase in the cost of natural gas.
Food prices rose a moderate 0.2 percent, even though fruit and vegetable costs jumped 1.3 percent. Analysts predicted bigger gains in the months ahead, reflecting crop damage from a freeze in Florida.
The Consumer Price Index report for January did show some price increases in scattered areas. The price of medical care rose 0.5 percent. It was the biggest one-month gain in two years. And the cost of tobacco products rose 0.4 percent, the sharpest increase since November.
The cost of used cars and trucks rose 1.5 percent, the sixth straight gain. Those increases have been attributed, in part, to last summer’s popular Cash for Clunkers program, which reduced the supply of used vehicles for sale.
Offsetting the gains, the price of airline tickets fell 2.5 percent. New-car prices slid 0.5 percent. And clothing costs dropped 0.1 percent.
The biggest factor lowering core inflation was a 0.3 percent drop in shelter costs, which accounts for 42 percent of the CPI. The drop in housing partly reflects the collapse of the housing market. More homes have been turned into rental properties, and rental costs have fallen.