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story.lead_photo.caption A worker stocks a produce stand in August at a metro station in Atlanta. Food costs rose 1.8% over the past year, the Labor Department reported Thursday.

WASHINGTON -- Overall consumer prices were unchanged in September as a big decline in energy costs offset small gains in other areas.

The flat reading in the consumer price index for September followed a tiny 0.1% August increase and left prices over the past 12 months rising at a modest annual rate of 1.7%, the Labor Department reported Thursday.

Core inflation, which excludes volatile energy and food prices, was up a 0.1% in September and 2.4% over the past 12 months. That was the same 12-month rise for core prices as in August, and both of those 12-month gains were the biggest since July 2018.

With the September consumer price index report, the government was able to announce that the annual cost-of-living increase for millions of Social Security recipients and other retirees would be 1.6% in 2020, a significant slowdown after a 2.8% cost-of-living increase increase for this year.

The unchanged reading for consumer prices in September reflected a 1.4% drop in energy costs, including a 2.4% fall in the cost of gasoline. Gasoline prices are now 8.2% below where they were a year ago.

Economists noted that higher tariffs imposed on $150 billion of Chinese goods at the beginning of September did not appear to have much of an impact on inflation readings during the month.

"There was almost no sign of the 10% tariff introduced ... at the start of the month," said Andrew Hunter, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics.

He noted that products where the tariffs could have boosted costs, such as clothing and video and audio products, actually fell in September. But Hunter cautioned that it may just be taking longer for the higher taxes on Chinese imports to feed through to the retail price level.

The Federal Reserve has cut its key interest rate twice this year, giving as one major reason the failure of inflation to hit the Fed's 2% goal for annual price increases.

That Fed target is based on the increase in overall prices. However, the Fed also closely watches the core number, believing it can signal where overall inflation may be headed.

With core prices now rising above the 2% level, some economists think the Fed may decide against cutting rates again at its next meeting later this month.

"The overall inflation picture remains roughly consistent with the Fed's target and looks to be staying there," said Sarah House, senior economist at Wells Fargo & Co. "It definitely takes away some of the ammunition of the hawks that were looking for more evidence of a slowdown and also just balancing the two sides of the mandate, but I think in general the Fed hasn't been terribly concerned about the upside trend in inflation recently."

However, some investors still strongly believe a third rate cut is coming. They point to growing head winds to the overall economy coming from President Donald Trump's trade war with China and the overall slowing of the global economy.

On Sept. 1, Trump initiated fees on about $112 billion in Chinese products, and the Asian nation immediately retaliated. Chinese and American negotiators are holding face-to-face talks in Washington this week, with levies set to rise further Tuesday and Dec. 15 barring any truce.

The price report showed that food costs edged up 0.1% in September, continuing a long string of modest increases. Over the past 12 months, food costs are up just 1.8%.

The price of new cars fell 0.1% in September while the price of used cars dropped a sharper 1.6%. The cost of clothing was also down while housing costs were up.

Prices for medical care rose 0.2%, the least since February, though components were mixed: Physicians' services costs increased, hospital services were unchanged and prescription drugs fell 0.5%.

Health insurance prices rose 1.4% in September. In the previous month, the index for such costs surged by a record 1.9%, though it's not directly based on prices paid by consumers; instead, it's an indirect measure based on retained earnings, or what insurers have after paying out claims.

In a separate report, the Labor Department said Thursday that the number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits fell by 10,000 last week to 210,000. The decline in claims, a proxy for layoffs, followed two weeks of increases and indicated that the labor market remains healthy.

The government reported last week that the unemployment rate fell to a 50-year low of 3.5% in September.

In a separate report, the Labor Department said average hourly earnings, adjusted for price changes, rose 1.2% in September from a year earlier, after a 1.4% increase in August, as nominal wage gains cooled.

Information for this article was contributed by Martin Crutsinger of The Associated Press and by Reade Pickert, Jordan Yadoo, Sophie Caronello and Edward Bolingbroke of Bloomberg News.

Business on 10/11/2019

Print Headline: Consumer price index unchanged

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