Consumer prices rose a modest 0.2% in Nov.


WASHINGTON -- Restrained by declines in the cost of energy, consumer prices rose a modest two-tenths of 1 percent in November, matching the average for the two preceding months, the Labor Department reported yesterday.

Analysts said they regarded the data, which were about as expected, as evidence that inflation remains in check, though not nonexistent, even as the economy picks up speed.

The consumer inflation rate for the past 12 months stood at 2.7 percent in November. On Thursday, the government reported that prices paid to American producers, a narrower gauge than consumer prices, were unchanged last month.

In a separate report yesterday showing that consumers are growing more confident about the economy, the widely followed University of Michigan index of consumer sentiment jumped 6.5 points in early December, to 87.7, according to subscribers to the survey.

This was the highest reading since January, and it included a 6.6-point jump in expectations about the future, one component of the government's economic forecasting gauge. The results unnerved the bond market, pushing up interest rates, by indicating that consumers would continue to increase their spending, possibly moving inflation higher.

The inflation figures showed prices rising more slowly last month than in October in six of the seven main categories, apparel being the exception.

The core, or underlying, rate of inflation -- excluding food and energy -- was performing only slightly less well than prices overall. It rose three-tenths of 1 percent last month, the same as ++ in October, and now stands 3.1 percent above its level of November 1992.

In the Baltimore metropolitan area, retail prices in November were 0.1 percent lower than in October. The decline was led by a seasonal rate adjustment in electricity prices, which fell 5.1 percent, the second straight two-month period of declines in the area's electricity index.

Also down were apparel and upkeep prices, by 3.1 percent. The steepest increase was 1.5 percent, in entertainment, followed by 1 percent in food and beverages.

In another report yesterday, the Labor Department said Americans' inflation-adjusted average weekly earnings have risen for two straight months, up 0.3 percent in November and 0.7 percent in October.

John E. Silvia, an economist at Kemper Financial Services, called the consumer price results released yesterday "pretty darn good." But he took issue with those who seem to have concluded that inflation has been thoroughly, and more or less permanently, suppressed.

"Inflation's not zero -- it's 3 percent," he said, adding that this includes significant benefit from half a year of falling oil prices.

Food prices, still seemingly affected by the summer's floods and drought, climbed four-tenths of 1 percent last month as fresh vegetables, up 5.3 percent, took over from fresh fruits as a main source of upward pressure. Beef prices, which had been steady since April, climbed six-tenths of 1 percent.

Expenses for housing, which accounts for 41 percent of the Consumer Price Index, rose a scant one-tenth of 1 percent last month, a slight slowdown from the preceding two months, reflecting declines in the cost of natural gas, electricity and fuel oil.

The transportation sector, where prices rose two-tenths of 1 percent, benefited from a 1.8 percent drop in gasoline and no change in new cars after a rise in October.

Apparel rose four-tenths of 1 percent in November, but the fact that prices have averaged a small decline over three months indicated that merchants were still unable to raise prices and, in fact, are being forced to offer discounts to move goods.

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