OT Feb Wholesale Prices Jump on Fuel, Tobacco

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Thursday March 16 9:54 AM ET

Feb. Wholesale Prices Jump on Fuel, Tobacco

By Marjorie Olster

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. wholesale prices raced up 1.0 percent in February, the sharpest spike in 9 1/2 years, the government said on Thursday in a report seen as assuring a Federal Reserve interest rate hike next week.

Costlier energy and tobacco were the culprits behind the higher-than-expected Producer Price Index (PPI) last month, the Labor Department said. The core PPI rate, which factors out volatile food and energy prices, rose 0.3 percent.

``There's nothing here to show that the slowdown in the (economy) that the Federal Reserve is looking for is imminent,'' said Richard Koss, global fixed-income portfolio manager at Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. in New York.

``The other side is that there's nothing to suggest a deviation from the Fed's slow and steady path toward raising rates,'' he added.

The PPI reinforced Wall Street's already high expectations that the Fed would nudge up short-term interest rates by a quarter percentage point at its March 21 policy meeting.

While some economists had predicted higher-than-forecast inflation numbers might spur the central bank to adopt a more aggressive stance to stem inflation, markets took the numbers in stride indicating little shift in expectations.

``If anything, the market had been positioned for worse PPI numbers,'' said Koss.

The jump in overall PPI was the highest since a matching 1.0 percent rise in October 1990, and it was double the 0.5 percent forecast by economists in a Reuters poll.

The core rate was only slightly above the forecast for a 0.2 percent increase.

The government attributed most of the rise in overall PPI to a 5.2 percent increase in the cost of finished energy goods. That was the largest one-month gain since a 7.5 percent gain in October 1990. Oil prices surged last week to the highest level since 1991, the year of the Gulf War.

The core rate would have been unchanged were it not for a 6.3 percent jump in cigarette prices, the Labor Department added. Prices of crude goods, or raw materials, rose 4.2 percent in February while prices for goods at the intermediate stage of production rose 0.8 percent.

The main gauge of U.S. inflation at the consumer level, the Consumer Price Index, is due out Friday morning.

Markets Take Ppi In Stride Bond prices and stock futures rose despite the surprisingly strong PPI.

``The overall number is stronger than expected but I don't think it is going to set us back on our heels this morning because the core rate is in line,'' said Arthur Hogan, chief stock market analyst at Jefferies & Co. ``That is really what we are looking for.''

Other market analysts said stocks were likely to shrug off the PPI increase.

``For now, inflation still appears to be muted,'' said Alan Ackerman, senior vice president and market strategist at Fahnestock and Co. ``The number did not increase to such a point that Wall Street is expected to be alarmed.''

A separate government report released Thursday morning provided more evidence that U.S. labor is in short supply.

The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits for the week ending March 11 fell to the lowest level in more than 26 years at 262,000, the Labor Department said.

That was the lowest claims number since the week ended Dec. 1, 1973 when they were 256,000.

The four-week moving average fell to 271,750 from 277,500 in the prior week. That was the lowest level on the four-week average seen since Dec. 15, 1973 when it was 256,750.

-- viewer (justp@ssing.by), March 16, 2000

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