Wholesale Inflation Soars In January
February 26, 2008

U.S. consumer confidence slumped in February, accelerating a decline that began in January, according to a report released Tuesday.

Meanwhile, U.S. wholesale prices surged in January and core inflation also climbed above expectations, according to more data revealing price pressures amid the economic slowdown.

The Conference Board, a private research group, said that its index of consumer confidence for February fell to 75, which, with the exception of the Iraq War in 2003, was the lowest reading in 15 years. The figure was below expectations for a reading of 81, and down from a revised 87.3 in January. The January reading was originally reported at 87.9. The index was 90.6 in December.

"The weakening in consumers' assessment of current conditions, fueled by a combination of less favorable business conditions and a sharp rise in the number of consumers saying jobs are hard to get, suggests the pace of growth in early 2008 has slowed even further," said Lynn Franco, director of the Conference Board's Consumer Research Center.

Consumers are more negative about current business conditions and the job market than they were a year ago. They're also downbeat about the short-term future, with a greater proportion expecting business conditions and employment to deteriorate further in the months ahead.

Data also showed the expectations index fell to 57.9 -- a 17-year low -- from a revised 69.3 in January. The January level was originally reported as 69.6.

"With so few consumers expecting conditions to turn around in the months ahead, the outlook for the economy continues to worsen and the risk of a recession continues to increase," Ms. Franco said.

The present situation index, a gauge of consumers' assessment of current economic conditions, rose to 100.6 from a revised 114.3 in January. It was originally reported at 115.3 in January.

Wholesale Prices Rise

The producer price index for finished goods rose 1.0% on a seasonally adjusted basis after a 0.3% decrease in December, the Labor Department said Tuesday. Originally, prices in December were estimated down 0.1%.

The core index, which excludes food and energy items, rose 0.4% last month, seasonally adjusted. It rose 0.2% in December.

Wall Street expected smaller price increases. Economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires had called for a 0.4% jump in the overall index and a 0.2% increase in the core index.

In the 12 months ending in January, prices climbed 7.4% on an unadjusted basis. In the 12 months ending in December, prices were up 6.3%. The 7.4% climb is the largest since 7.5% in October 1981.

Data released a week ago showed consumer prices last month climbed 0.4%, a worrisome sign because the economy is slowing. Dealing with creeping inflation and a weakening economy is a balancing act for the Federal Reserve, which has cut the federal funds rate 2.25 percentage points since September.

The PPI data showed energy prices in the wholesale sector increased 1.5% last month, after falling 3.0% in December. Gasoline last month rose 2.9%. Residential natural gas was up 0.7%.

Food prices advanced 1.7% in January, after rising 1.4% in December. Bakery products soared 2.7% -- the largest increase since 3.3% in March 1974.

Prices of passenger cars rose 0.3%, after falling 0.5% in December. Light motor trucks also rose 0.3%.

Prices of tobacco products dipped 0.1%. Alcoholic beverages rose 0.2%.

Pharmaceutical preparations climbed 1.5% in January.

Book publishing rose 1.7%. Furniture climbed 0.4%.

The PPI data revealed a pickup of prices for goods down the production pipeline. Raw materials rose 2.5% in January, up from a 1.1% rate of increase in December. Core crude goods increased 4.0% in January. Semi-processed goods rose 1.4%, compared to December's 0.2% decrease. Core intermediate goods increased 0.8% in January.

Write to Matthew Cowley at matthew.cowley@dowjones.com and Jeff Bater at jeff.bater@dowjones.com

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