POSTED: 3:30 a.m. HST, Aug 17, 2011
WASHINGTON » Companies paid more in July for raw materials and wholesale goods. Food, tobacco and pickup truck costs drove the increase, while gas prices fell for a second straight month.
The Producer Price Index, which measures price changes before they reach the consumer, rose 0.2 percent last month, the Labor Department said Wednesday. That follows a 0.4 percent drop in June, the first decline in 17 months.
Excluding the volatile food and energy categories, the so-called "core" index rose 0.4 percent. That's the biggest increase since January.
A key reason for the increase was a 2.8 percent rise in tobacco prices — the most in more than two years. That accounted for about a quarter of the rise in the core index. Pickup truck prices rose 1 percent.
Gas prices fell for the second straight month. Food costs rose 0.6 percent, the biggest rise since February.
The Producer Price Index has increased 7.2 percent in the past 12 months. That's up sharply from earlier this year but below May's rise of 7.3 percent, which was the biggest in two and a half years.
The core index has increased 2.5 percent in the past 12 months, the most since June 2009.
Falling oil and gas prices are reducing inflation pressures. That's a reversal from earlier this year, when food and gas prices spiked and caused the Producer Price Index to jump 1.5 percent in February, after a 1 percent gain the previous month.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke faced criticism that the central bank's policies were contributing to higher inflation. The Fed has kept the short-term interest rate it controls at nearly zero since December 2008.
But gas prices fell from a peak in early May of nearly $4 a gallon to a nationwide average of $3.59 a gallon on Tuesday. One reason for the decline: Americans are driving less. Drivers have cut back on their gasoline purchases for 21 straight weeks, according to a weekly survey by MasterCard SpendingPulse.
And oil prices, which spiked this spring because of turmoil in the Middle East, dropped to $86.65 a barrel on Tuesday. Concerns about slower global economic growth have pushed oil prices down from about $97 a barrel a month ago.
Bernanke and many private economists have said the price increases would be temporary and inflation would remain muted. High unemployment makes it difficult for workers to press for higher wages, which in turn makes it hard for companies to raise prices on the products they sell.
Lower inflation gives the Federal Reserve more leeway to keep interest rates low and potentially engage in other efforts to boost the economy.
Last week, Fed policymakers said they will keep its benchmark short-term rate at nearly zero at least until mid-2013. Previously, the central bank had never given a clear time frame. It hopes the certainty of low rates will encourage consumers and businesses to borrow and spend more.
"Inflation has moderated as prices of energy and some commodities have declined from their earlier peaks," Fed policymakers said Aug. 9. The central bank forecast in June that inflation will remain within its informal target range of below 2 percent this year and next.