Consumer prices rose by the most in 10 months in February as the cost of gasoline spiked, but there was little sign that underlying inflation pressures were building up.
The Labor Department said on Friday its Consumer Price Index increased 0.4 percent after advancing 0.2 percent in January. Gasoline accounted for more than 80 percent of the rise in consumer prices last month, the department said.
Outside the volatile food and energy category, inflation pressures were generally contained. Core CPI edged up 0.1 percent after gaining 0.2 percent in January.
The message here is we continue to have the complete absence of price pressures given the slack in the economy, said Anthony Karydakis, chief U.S. economist at Commerzbank in New York. Looking ahead, the upward pressure on gasoline we have seen in March has set the stage for another strong rise in headline inflation.
The February increase was below economists' expectations in a Reuters poll for a 0.2 percent rise.
Government debt prices were steady at lower levels after the data. The dollar fell against the euro, and pared gains against the yen.
Graphic - consumer prices: http://link.reuters.com/cam27s
Graphic - core CPI: http://link.reuters.com/mam27s
The Federal Reserve said on Tuesday that the recent spike in energy costs would likely push up inflation temporarily. Over the medium-term, inflation was likely to run at or below its 2 percent target, it said.
While the central bank reiterated its expectation that overnight interest rates would remain near zero until at least through late 2014, it offered no clues on whether it would launch a third round of bond buying, or quantitative easing, to keep borrowing costs low to stimulate the recovery.
Last month, overall inflation was pushed up by gasoline prices, which soared 6 percent, the largest increase since December 2010, after rising 0.9 percent in January.
Although surging gasoline prices are a strain on consumers, they have so far not caused a sharp pull back in spending, thanks to a strengthening jobs market. But salaries are not keeping up with rising inflation.
Average weekly earnings, adjusted for inflation, fell 0.3 percent last month after slipping 0.1 percent in January, the department said in a separate report.
Compared to February last year, weekly earnings were down 0.4 percent after declining 0.5 percent in January.
But there is some relief for households. Food prices were flat last month after rising 0.2 percent in January. Food prices were the weakest since July 2010.
Overall consumer prices rose 2.9 percent year-on-year after increasing by the same margin in January.
Core consumer prices were last month restrained by apparel prices, which fell 0.9 percent - the most since July 2006 - after rising 0.9 percent in January. There were also declines in the prices of tobacco, airline tickets and used cars and trucks.
But new motor vehicle prices rose 0.6 percent after being flat in January. The rise in prices likely reflects strong demand for autos.
While housing costs held up, owners' equivalent rent rose only 0.1 percent last month after increasing 0.2 percent the prior month. Rents have risen in response to increasing demand for rental apartments as Americans move away from homeownership in the face of continued declines in house prices.
In the 12 months to February, core CPI increased 2.2 percent after rising 2.3 percent in January. This measure has rebounded from a record low of 0.6 percent in October.
(Editing by Neil Stempleman)