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Inflation at the wholesale level soared in January by the fastest pace in 16 years, pushed higher by rising costs for food, energy and medicine.
The Labor Department said Tuesday that wholesale prices rose 1 percent last month, more than double the 0.4 percent increase that economists had been expecting.
The worse-than-expected performance was certain to capture attention at the Federal Reserve, which has chosen to combat a threatened recession by aggressively cutting interest rates in the belief that weaker economic growth will keep a lid on prices.
But the combination of rising inflation and weaker growth raises the threat of “stagflation,” the economic malady that plagued the country through the 1970s, when a series of oil shocks left households battered by the twin problems of stagnant growth and rising prices.
With the January jump, wholesale prices have risen over the past 12 months by 7.5 percent, the fastest increase since the fall of 1981, when the country was in a deep recession.
The big jump in wholesale prices followed a worse-than-expected increase in consumer prices, which rose by 0.4 percent last month as consumers got hit by higher costs in the same areas of food, energy and health care.
The wholesale report said that energy prices jumped 1.5 percent, reflecting a 2.9 percent rise in gasoline and an even bigger 8.5 percent jump in the cost of home heating oil.
Food prices, which have been surging because of increased demand stemming from ethanol production, rose by 1.7 percent last month, the biggest monthly increase in three years. Prices for beef, bakery products and eggs were all up sharply.
Core wholesale inflation, which excludes food and energy, posted a 0.4 percent increase, the biggest increase in 11 months. This gain was led by a 1.5 percent spike in the cost of prescription and non-prescription drugs.