Consumer prices jump more than forecast

Rise is the biggest in 19 months for prices excluding food and energy, a worrying sign for the Fed.

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By David Goldman, CNNMoney.com staff writer

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A key inflation measure continued to rise in January, led by an increase in food prices.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Consumer prices rose in January, fanning concerns that high inflation may keep the Federal Reserve from maintaining its aggressive interest rate-cutting campaign.

The Consumer Price Index, a key inflation reading, rose 0.4% last month, according to the Labor Department. That matched the 0.4% jump recorded in December and exceeded the 0.3% rise economists surveyed by Briefing.com had forecast.

The more closely watched core CPI, which strips out volatile food and energy prices, rose 0.3%, representing the biggest jump in 19 months. Economists had expected a 0.2% rise after a 0.2% jump in December.

The rise in January left overall prices 4.3% above where they were 12 months earlier, up from the 4.1% rise on that basis in December.

Food prices were much higher in January. A recent driver of inflation, food prices jumped 0.7% from a 0.1% rise in December, the largest monthly increase since last February.

The report, however, showed energy prices cooled in the past month. Overall energy prices were up only 0.7%, after a 1.7% rise in the previous month, as gasoline prices fell to 2.1% below their peak level recorded in May 2007.

Core CPI posted a 12-month change of 2.5%, up from a 2.4% rise on that basis in December.

That's important because the rise is a bit above the perceived comfort zone of central bankers. The Federal Reserve is generally believed to want to see the 12-month change in core inflation readings remain between 1% and 2%.

The Fed has boldly cut its key interest rate to 3% from 5.25% in September, and some economists have suggested that further rate cuts are needed to boost the economy and stave off a recession.

But rising price pressures could tie the hands of central bankers, who not only seek to maintain economic growth, but aim to keep inflation in check as well.

A key Fed official seemed to suggest Tuesday that further rate cuts may not be prudent if inflation continues to rise. Gary Stern, the Minneapolis regional Fed president, said the Fed needs to mind inflation and be cautious with its future rate-cutting policy.

But as the Fed balances growth with inflation, some economists believe that further rate cuts are still on the way.

"This was not a good report, but the Fed will not be deterred from cutting rates," said Wachovia economist Sam Bullard, who believes that the Fed will cut rates by a quarter of a percentage point when it next meets on March 18.

"The Fed is aware of inflation, but they're still focused on growth," he said. To top of page

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