Consumer Prices Rise 0.6 Percent in March

Consumer prices jumped 0.6 percent in March, the biggest inflation surge in five months, as the costs of energy, clothing and airline fares all rose sharply.

The Labor Department (search) said last month's increase in the Consumer Price Index (search), the most closely watched inflation gauge, followed a 0.4 percent rise in February and left consumer inflation rising at an annual rate of 4.3 percent in the first three months of this year. That was a full percentage point above the 3.3 percent rise in prices for all of 2004.

The new report showed that even outside of food and energy, there were significant price pressures last month. The so-called core rate of inflation rose by a worrisome 0.4 percent in March, double what economists had expected, reflecting higher prices for clothing, hotel rooms and airline tickets.

The government's new report on inflation showed significantly higher price pressures than had been observed in Tuesday's report on wholesale inflation, which showed a similar overall increase of 0.7 percent, reflecting a sharp jump in energy prices, but only a tiny 0.1 percent increase in prices outside of energy and food.

Economists and the Federal Reserve track the core inflation figure more closely, believing it is a better gauge of underlying inflation pressures since the overall price number can swing widely in response to the volatile energy and food components.

The 0.4 percent rise in the prices outside of food and energy in March followed a 0.3 percent increase in February, which had been the first uptick from four straight months of more moderate 0.2 percent gains in the core inflation rate.

So far this year, the core rate for consumer prices are rising at an annual rate of 3.3 percent in the first three months of the year, the fastest quarterly inflation spurt for core prices since the summer of 2001. For all of last year, core inflation rose by just 2.2 percent.