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Producer Price Index: Highest Increase in 32 Years
NY Times
By JEREMY W. PETERS
December 19, 2006

Wholesale prices shot upward in November, the Labor Department reported today, offering a stark reminder that inflation remains a threat to the economy.

The producer price index, which measures what businesses charge one another for everything from iron ore and diesel fuel to cases of soda pop, was 2 percent higher in November than in October, seasonally adjusted. The index had not risen by that much in a single month in more than 32 years, since the energy and stagflation crises of the mid-1970s.

Rising prices for gasoline and light trucks, which had fallen considerably in October, led the surge last month.

Even with the volatile prices of food and fuel removed, the "core" index rose by 1.3 percent for the month, the most since 1980.

The figures reinforced the message coming from the Federal Reserve that inflation has not been vanquished, and would seem to lengthen the odds against any move soon by the Fed to begin reducing interest rates, which some investors had hoped for as early as the spring of next year.

Separately, the Commerce Department issued a report on housing construction this morning that contained some mixed signals. On the one hand, the number of building permits authorized last month fell again, for the tenth straight month, a reminder of just how fragile the housing market remains. Permits declined by 3 percent for the month, seasonally adjusted, and were 31.3 percent lower than a year ago.

But in the same reports, the number of homes actually begun by builders rose 6.7 percent in November, seasonally adjusted.

Economists were quick to say that a November rebound in the housing-starts figure was likely simply because October's figures had shown the steepest decline in six years, and that he new figures did not necessarily signal a turn in the broader downward trend.

"It doesn't change the bottom line," said Richard F. Moody, chief economist for Mission Residential, a real estate investment firm. "While there is a bottom out there for the housing market, we just don't know where it is yet."

Wall Street did not much like either the price report or the housing report. Stocks moved broadly lower early in the day, and bond yields bobbed upward for a while, though by late morning both markets were little changed from Monday's levels.

For the Federal Reserve, the reports offer conflicting tugs on policy. On the one hand, the hotter inflation data bolsters the Fed's case for keeping interest rates unchanged, as it has done at the last four meetings, or even moving closer to an increase. The central bank has repeatedly said that inflation remains too high and that its next move on interest rates is more likely to be upward than downward.

But the weak housing report and its implications for a slowing economy would seem to argue for action soon to stimulate growth and demand, perhaps by lowering interest rates. In its latest policy statement, the Fed made its clearest acknowledgment to date that economic growth is faltering, particularly in the housing market.

Still, economists said today that the Fed will probably want more evidence of weakness before thinking about easing its foot off the monetary brake pedal. Joel L. Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisers, said the central bank is likely to wait several months "before making any judgments about the condition of the housing market."

Because higher prices at the producer level do not always translate into higher prices for consumers, some economists said that today's report may not change the overall outlook for inflation, which has seemed to improve in recent months.

"It should be weighed somewhat," said Kenneth Beauchemin, a United States economist with Global Insight. "But I'd heavily discount it, especially because of recent positives and consistent news regarding consumer prices."

The government reported last week that the consumer price index was unchanged in November, after declining in September and October, largely because of falling fuel prices. The "core" consumer price index, excluding food and energy, rose slightly each month.

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