- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 16, 2006

1:19 p.m.

Consumer inflation accelerated in July, reflecting a big jump in gasoline and other energy prices. In evidence that the economy is slowing, industrial output in July slipped to just half the June pace.

The Labor Department reported today that its closely watched Consumer Price Index rose by 0.4 percent last month, double the 0.2 percent increase in June. Energy costs had fallen in June, but they rose by 2.9 percent last month, the biggest increase in three months.

Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve reported that output at the nation’s factories, mines and utilities increased by 0.4 percent last month, just half of the 0.8 percent gain in June.

Core inflation, which excludes food and energy, slowed in July, rising by just 0.2 percent after four straight months of 0.3 percent gains. This slowdown, which was helped by a 1.2 percent drop in clothing prices, was seen as likely to encourage officials at the Federal Reserve, who are counting on a slowing economy to reduce inflation pressures.

The rise in industrial production was the slowest since no gain in May. Output at manufacturing industries edged up a tiny 0.1 percent, but this weakness was offset by stronger gains in other sectors of the economy.

Output at the nation’s utilities shot up by 2 percent in July, reflecting higher production at electric utilities in response to warmer-than-normal temperatures. Output at the nation’s mines, a category that also includes oil and gas production, rose 0.8 percent in July, reflecting increased demand for domestic energy supplies.

Financial markets staged a big rally yesterday after the government reported that core inflation at the wholesale level fell by 0.3 percent in July.

Investors are hoping that the Fed will not feel the need to push interest rates any higher to slow inflation. Last week, the central bank left rates unchanged, breaking the longest run of uninterrupted rate increases in Fed history.

In other economic news, the Commerce Department reported that construction of new homes fell in July by 2.5 percent, the fifth decline in the past six months, providing further evidence that the once-booming housing market is slowing.

The Commerce Department reported today that homes were being built in July at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.795 million units, the slowest building pace in 20 months.

The 0.4 percent rise in consumer prices in July was the largest increase since a similar 0.4 percent rise in May. Through July, consumer prices have been rising at an annual rate of 4.8 percent, up from a 3.4 percent rise in consumer inflation for all of 2005.

The faster pace of price gains reflected a relentless surge in energy prices, which have been rising this year at an annual rate of 25.3 percent, up from last year’s gain of 17.3 percent.

Crude oil prices hit a record of $77.03 per barrel on July 14, reflecting rising tensions in the Middle East and increased demand for energy from developing countries such as China.

For July, gasoline prices jumped 5.3 percent, the biggest gain since April. Analysts warned that further increases were in store for motorists. Nationwide, gasoline pump prices hit a record $3.03 last week.

Home heating oil was up 3.1 percent in July, but electricity prices for home use edged up just 0.1 percent and natural gas prices were unchanged.

Food costs rose by 0.2 percent last month, compared to a 0.3 percent rise in June. The slower price increase reflected declines in the cost of beef, poultry and vegetables.

Excluding food and energy, the 0.2 percent rise in core prices left this category rising at an annual rate of 2.7 percent, still above the 1 percent to 2 percent Fed comfort zone.

The slowdown in core inflation last month reflected a 1.2 percent decline in clothing costs, the biggest drop in this category since a 1.4 percent plunge in August 1988.

The Labor Department reported that starting with the release of the January consumer inflation figures next year, it will publish the figures to three decimal places instead of just one as it does now.

The change is planned to give financial markets more information. Stocks have been soaring and plunging in recent months depending on whether the core inflation number showed a reading of 0.3 percent or 0.2 percent.

With inflation increasing in July, inflation-adjusted weekly earnings fell by 0.1 percent, the Labor Department said in a separate report.

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