Consumer prices rise the most in 10 months

Inflation is inching up toward the Federal Reserve's target

The cost of living in the U.S. rose in April by the most in almost a year, a sign inflation may pick up as demand in the world's largest economy recovers from a weak first quarter.

The consumer price index increased 0.3 percent, the biggest advance since June, after rising 0.2 percent the prior month, a Labor Department report showed today in Washington. The gain matched the median forecast of 82 economists surveyed by Bloomberg. Costs were up 2 percent in the past 12 months, the most since July, after a 1.5 percent year-over-year advance the prior month.

Inflation is inching up toward the Federal Reserve's target, giving officials reason to continue to scale back the central bank's unprecedented bond-buying program. Stronger hiring and faster wage gains will be needed to propel a pick-up in demand and enable consumers to cope with higher prices.

"As consumer demand starts to pick up and consumers are more confident and less sensitive to price changes, you'll see some pick-up in inflation," Robert Rosener, an economist at Credit Agricole CIB in New York, said in an interview before the report. "Overall, prices should be normalizing by the middle of 2015."

Economists' estimates in the Bloomberg survey ranged from unchanged to a 0.5 percent advance.

Another Labor Department report today showed the fewest Americans in seven years filed applications for unemployment benefits last week as the labor market continued to improve.

Jobless claims dropped by 24,000 to 297,000 in the week ended May 10, less than any economist projected in a Bloomberg survey and the least since May 2007. The median estimate of 49 economists surveyed was 320,000.

Stripping out volatile food and fuel, the so-called core measure increased 0.2 percent, the same as in March. Economists had forecast a 0.1 percent increase, according to the survey median.

The measure climbed 1.8 percent from April 2013, the biggest year-to-year gain since August, following a 1.7 percent increase in the prior 12-month period.

The Fed's 2 percent goal is based on the Commerce Department's inflation gauge that is tied to consumer spending. That measure climbed 1.1 percent in the 12 months through March.

Energy costs increased 0.3 percent from a month earlier. Falling fuel prices of late are giving households some relief after costs climbed to the highest level in a year last month.

Owners-equivalent rent, one of the categories designed to track rental prices, increased 0.2 percent.

Today's report showed food costs climbed 0.4 percent for a third consecutive month. The cost of meat increased 2.9 percent, the most since November 2003. The jump in pork was the biggest since July 1986.

As food prices rise, companies including Chipotle Mexican Grill are taking steps to pass some of the costs on to customers. The burrito chain may raise its prices by up to 6 percent this year, though even that won't offset all inflation, Chief Financial Officer John Hartung said April 29 at an industry conference.

"In terms of inflation, it's always going to be a challenge," said Hartung, adding that the company's beef prices were up 25 percent in April compared with the fourth quarter. "In every single market we are in, we've got pricing power. We've got more than we plan to take."

The increase in prices meant that hourly earnings adjusted for inflation dropped 0.3 percent on average in April after falling 0.1 the prior month, according to another Labor Department report today. Over the past 12 months, real hourly pay declined 0.1 percent.

Fed officials led by Chair Janet Yellen repeated at their April meeting that long-term inflation expectations remain stable. The central bank's preferred gauge of consumer prices hasn't exceeded the Fed's 2 percent goal since March 2012.

The Fed's Open Market Committee pared its monthly asset- buying to $45 billion, its fourth straight $10 billion cut, and said further reductions in "measured steps" are likely.

The CPI is the broadest of three price gauges from the Labor Department because it includes all goods and services. About 60 percent of the index covers prices consumers pay for services from medical visits to airline fares, movie tickets and rents.

Wholesale prices rose 0.6 percent in April, driven by the biggest jump in food costs in three years, data showed yesterday. Import prices declined 0.4 percent last month following a 0.4 percent gain in March, according to a separate report this week.

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