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U.S. consumer prices edge up; retail sales unexpectedly increase

The Labor Department said on Wednesday its Consumer Price Index edged up 0.1 per cent last month after jumping 0.5 per cent in September.

Julie Jacobson/AP

Underlying U.S. consumer prices increased in October on the back of a pickup in rents and healthcare costs, bolstering the view that a recent disinflationary trend worrying the Federal Reserve probably had ended.

The rise in the consumer price index, excluding the volatile food and energy categories, reported by the Labor Department on Wednesday likely clears the way for the U.S. central bank to raise interest rates next month.

October's gain in the so-called core CPI, which measures underlying inflation pressures, could comfort Fed officials concerned that stubbornly low inflation may reflect not only temporary factors but also more persistent developments.

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"The Fed has struggled this year in determining if the slowdown in core inflation has been due to a confluence of one-offs or more persistent disinflationary forces," said Sarah House, an economist at Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, North Carolina.

"The pickup clears the way for a December rate hike and supports the case for continued tightening in the year ahead."

The core CPI rose 0.2 per cent in October, also lifted by increases in the cost of used cars and trucks, tobacco, wireless phone services, airline fares, education and motor vehicle insurance. It edged up 0.1 per cent in September.

October's gain lifted the year-on-year increase in the core CPI to 1.8 per cent. The year-on-year core CPI had increased by 1.7 per cent for five straight months.

Last month, owners' equivalent rent of primary residence climbed 0.3 per cent, quickening after September's 0.2 per cent increase. The cost of hospital services were up 0.5 per cent and prices for doctor visits rose 0.2 per cent.

Economists said the increase in healthcare costs suggested the Fed's preferred inflation measure, the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index excluding food and energy, probably rose 0.2 per cent in October, which would snap five straight monthly 0.1 per cent gains.

That would raise the year-on-year increase in the core PCE price index to 1.4 per cent from 1.3 per cent in September.

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"It appears the inflation rut that took hold in the spring may finally be behind us," said Michael Feroli, an economist at JPMorgan in New York.

The core PCE price index has consistently undershot the Fed's 2 per cent target for more than five years.

The central bank has lifted borrowing costs twice this year and has projected three rate increases in 2018. The government will publish core PCE price index data later this month.

The dollar was little changed against a basket of currencies after an earlier slide, while prices for Treasuries were trading mostly higher. Stocks on Wall Street fell amid declining oil prices and concerns over the fate of a proposed U.S. tax overhaul in Congress.

HEALTHY CONSUMER SPENDING

Overall consumer prices, however, rose marginally in October as the boost to gasoline prices from hurricane-related disruptions to Gulf Coast oil refineries was unwound.

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The CPI nudged up 0.1 per cent last month after jumping 0.5 per cent in September. That lowered the year-on-year increase in the CPI to 2.0 per cent from 2.2 per cent in September.

Low inflation is, however, helping to underpin consumer spending. In a separate report on Wednesday, the Commerce Department said retail sales increased 0.2 per cent last month as heavy price discounting by automobile manufacturers buoyed purchases of motor vehicles.

Data for September was revised to show sales jumping 1.9 per cent, which was the largest gain since March 2015, rather than the previously reported 1.6 per cent advance. Retail sales increased 4.6 per cent on an annual basis.

The slowdown in retail sales from September's robust pace largely reflected an unwinding of the boost to building materials and gasoline prices after recent hurricanes.

Receipts at auto dealerships increased 0.7 per cent after soaring 4.6 per cent in September, supported by the deep price discounting by manufacturers. Sales at gardening and building material stores fell 1.2 per cent last month after surging 3.0 per cent in September.

Receipts at service stations decreased 1.2 per cent in October. That followed a 6.4 per cent gain in September. Excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, retail sales increased 0.3 per cent last month after climbing 0.5 per cent in September.

These so-called core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product. Last month's increase in core retail sales indicated a healthy pace of consumer spending at the start of the fourth quarter.

Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, increased at a 2.4 per cent annualized rate in the third quarter.

"We expect strong fundamentals for consumer spending, including continued job gains, firming real wage growth, and the recent strength in household net worth, to support solid gains in retail sales over the coming months," said Kathleen Navin, an economist at Macroeconomic Advisers.

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