Consumer price drop eases interest rate worries
By Martin Crutsinger
WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve seems likely to keep interest rates at record lows for several more months after news yesterday 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 suggests that short-term rates can remain low to strengthen the economic recovery without triggering inflation.
Some have worried a Fed rate increase affecting consumers and businesses might be imminent, especially after it just raised the rate banks pay for emergency loans.
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 — what banks charge for overnight loans.
"Rate hikes remain unlikely until late 2010 or early 2011," Eric Lascelles, a TD Securities economist, 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, the Fed's main lever since the 1980s.
The Fed announced late Thursday it was boosting the rate banks pay for emergency loans — called the discount rate — by a quarter-point to 0.75 percent.
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, so businesses can't raise prices.