Economic Report: CPI surges 0.5% in January, triggers fresh worries about rising inflation

Rising prices, or inflation, is giving Wall Street the jitters. And if that keeps up, Main Street is going to feet it, too.

The numbers: The consumer-price index leaped 0.5% in January to mark the biggest increase in five months, adding to recent worries about rising inflation. The cost of rent, clothes, gasoline, health care and auto insurance all rose.

Economists surveyed by MarketWatch had forecast a 0.4% increase.

Higher consumer prices in January, however, didn’t substantially alter the overall picture on inflation. The increase in the CPI over the past 12 months remained unchanged at 2.1%.

After stripping out volatile gas and food, the more closely followed core rate of inflation rose 0.3% last month. The 12-month rate of core inflation was also flat at 1.8%.

Inflation-adjusted U.S. wages declined by 0.2% in January.

What happened: The rise in the cost of living last month was driven by higher prices at the gas pump. But the cost of food, housing, medical care and car insurance also rose.

The 1.3% increase in car insurance last month was the largest since 2001.

Consumer prices have accelerated since last summer owing to higher oil prices and more expensive housing. Other staples such as groceries also cost more.

The higher cost of living has partly been offset by increasing pay for workers, but households aren’t reaping a huge bonanza.

Adjusted for inflation, hourly wages rose a modest 0.8% over the past year factoring in a small decline in January.

Big picture: Inflation has re-emerged after a long period of dormancy and that’s giving investors jitters. U.S. stock markets tanked in early February after the biggest yearly increase in hourly pay since 2009.

Wall Street is worried higher inflation will force the Federal Reserve to raise U.S. interest rates more aggressively, shifting money into bonds and potentially choking off an economic expansion that’s almost nine years old.

Yet many economists and market strategists believe the fears about inflation are overdone. While inflation might hover around 2% or so in 2018, it’s unlikely to rise much further.

What are they saying?: “This is a classic inflation scare,” said Michael Arone, chief investment strategist of State Street Global Advisors, before the CPI report was issued. He thinks inflation will crest soon and level off.

“We aren’t changing our view that the U.S. faces medium-term inflation risks, but the short-term picture does not look alarming,” said Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics.

Read: Why this investment pro thinks Wall Street’s inflation fears are overblown

Market reaction: The Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, +0.24% and S&P 500 index SPX, +0.39% opened lower in Wednesday trades. The yield on the 2-year Treasury note TMUBMUSD02Y, +1.75%   shot higher as well.

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