December 17, 2014 / 1:33 PM / 4 years ago

U.S. consumer prices fall on gasoline; rate hike likely in 2015

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. consumer prices recorded their biggest drop in nearly six years in November as gasoline prices tumbled, but did little to change views the Federal Reserve would start raising interest rates in mid-2015.

A woman pumps gas at a station in Falls Church, Virginia December 16, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The Labor Department said on Wednesday its Consumer Price Index (CPI) fell 0.3 percent, the largest decline since December 2008, after being flat in October. The CPI increased 1.3 percent in the 12 months through November, the smallest gain in nine months, after advancing 1.7 percent in October.

Fed officials shrugged off the disinflationary trend as transitory in a statement at the end of a two-day meeting. The U.S. central bank offered an upbeat assessment of the economy and signaled it was on track to raise borrowing costs in 2015.

“Conditions could be in place to raise rates during the first half of next year,” said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pennsylvania.

The Fed said it expected inflation to rise gradually toward its 2 percent target. It has kept its short-term interest rate near zero since December 2008.

Wall Street had expected the CPI to dip only 0.1 percent from October and increase 1.4 percent from a year earlier.

While inflation is trending lower, job growth has shifted into higher gear and the pace of slack absorption in the economy has accelerated in recent months. The Labor Department report also showed average weekly earnings, adjusted for inflation, recorded their biggest gain in six years in November.

U.S. stocks rallied on the Fed’s vote of confidence in the economy, while prices for U.S. Treasury debt fell. The dollar jumped against a basket of currencies.

Plunging crude oil prices, which hit a new 5-1/2 year low this week on increased shale production in the United States and slowing global demand, are likely to keep overall inflation in check for while.

Underlying price pressures are also ebbing a bit after showing some signs of creeping up in October, but this could also be temporary as the cost of rental accommodation continues to push higher.

Stripping out food and energy prices, the so-called core CPI edged up 0.1 percent after rising 0.2 percent in October. In the 12 months through November, the core CPI rose 1.7 percent after increasing 1.8 percent in October.

“If they (Fed policymakers) delay tightening due to low oil prices, it will be out of caution for the potential economic impact,” said Jay Morelock, an economist at FTN Financial in New York.

“If the fall in energy prices continues, the loss of capital spending by energy companies could cause GDP to fall in the first half of the year.”

Gasoline prices have recorded their biggest drop since December 2008. They have now declined for five straight months. Within the core CPI, shelter costs increased 0.3 percent last month after rising 0.2 percent in October.

There were also increases in airline fares, medical care and alcohol prices. But new motor vehicle prices fell as did the cost of household furnishings, apparel and used cars and trucks.

(This story adds dropped word “they’ to 12th paragraph)

Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Jeffrey Benkoe

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