Wholesale Prices Surge; Economists Urge Calm

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    Embed <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/6648927/6648928" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no">
  • Transcript

New government figures show wholesale prices rose at a higher-than-expected rate of two percent last month. The data has raised new questions in the financial markets about inflationary pressures on the economy.

The financial markets hate inflation. They also hate sudden and unexpected changes in economic conditions. So investors were caught off guard Tuesday morning by news that a key inflation measure rose at its fastest rate in three decades last month. But economists said the report probably overstated the real inflation threat.

The Labor Department said the producer price index rose by two percent last month. That was partly because energy prices rose. But even when food and fuel costs were excluded, the increase was still 1.3 percent — the biggest jump since the last days of the Carter administration.

Those are big increases, but several economists said the numbers were probably somewhat distorted. They noted that the index had fallen or stayed flat throughout much of the fall. So, they said, it was probably playing catchup.

Inflation Indicator Jumps in November

How Bad Are the Numbers?

Not so bad, it turns out. Sure, it's a pretty scary headline: "Producer Prices Soar at Fastest Pace in Three Decades."


But the increase in November is only a little bit larger than the decline in October. Average the two months together and wholesale prices appear to be behaving.


Economist Peter Morici points out that producer prices are more volatile than consumer prices.


"November increases should not be viewed with alarm because of past monthly declines," he says.


For the record, the Producer Price Index rose 2.0 percent last month, after falling 1.6 percent in October.


On Wall Street, the major indices opened lower Tuesday morning and the surprise jump in inflation numbers probably had something to do with it.


But stocks recovered their losses by day's end, with the Dow Jones industrial average gaining nearly 30 points.


Investors will likely be considering the likelihood that higher inflation will force Federal Reserve policymakers out of their neutral position.


And here they might find some comfort. The Fed doesn't meet again until the end of January and so will have lots of additional data to review before having to make a call.


— Les Cook, NPR

WASHINGTON (AP) — Inflation at the wholesale level surged by the largest amount in more than three decades in November, reflecting higher prices for gasoline and a host of other items.

The Producer Price Index, which measures inflation pressures before they reach the consumer, was up 2 percent last month, the biggest advance since a similar increase in November 1974, the Labor Department reported Tuesday.

Economists had been expecting a rebound in wholesale prices following two months of big declines. However, the 2 percent jump was four times bigger than the 0.5 percent increase they had forecast. Even excluding volatile energy and food prices, core inflation posted a 1.3 percent advance, the biggest jump in 26 years.

In other economic news, construction of new homes and apartments increased by 6.7 percent in November to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.588 million units. However, in a sign of the troubles still besetting the housing industry, applications for permits to build new homes fell for a 10th consecutive month.

The report on wholesale prices was in stark contrast to last week's report that consumer prices were flat in November, the third straight month of price relief at the retail level.

The big difference was energy costs, which fell in the consumer survey but were up 6.1 percent in the November survey of wholesale prices.

The rise in wholesale energy costs was led by a 17.9 percent jump in gasoline prices, the biggest increase since June 2000.

Natural gas for home use, home heating oil and diesel fuel costs all posted big gains at the wholesale level as well.

The performance of wholesale prices was certain to raise concerns about whether more price pressures are in the pipeline.

Federal Reserve officials last week left interest rates unchanged at their final meeting of the year but said they continued to be worried about inflation pressures.

The 2 percent rise in wholesale inflation followed four straight months of benign readings including outright big declines of 1.3 percent in September and 1.6 percent in October.

In those months, energy prices were falling sharply, a situation that reversed in November.

Food costs showed a small 0.1 percent rise last month after a big 0.8 percent decline in October as increases in the price of dairy products, eggs and soft drinks offset declines in vegetable and fruit prices.

The 1.3 percent rise in core wholesale inflation, which excludes energy and food, followed a big 0.9 percent drop in October and was the biggest one-month gain since a similar 1.3 percent rise in July 1980.

The increase in the core rate of inflation was led by a record 13.7 percent jump in the price of light trucks, a category that includes sport utility vehicles. The price of new passenger cars rose by 2.2 percent.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.