Inflation at the wholesale level eased slightly in April even though gasoline prices surged for a third straight month.

Wholesale prices rose 0.7 percent last month, down slightly from a 1 percent jump in March, the Labor Department reported Friday. The big force driving the increase was an 8.2 percent jump in gasoline prices, which followed increases of 8.7 percent and 5.3 percent in the two previous months.

But outside of the volatile energy and food sectors, prices were unchanged last month, the second straight reading of zero for the closely watched core inflation index.

In other economic news, the Commerce Department reported that retail sales fell by 0.2 percent in April.

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That was weaker than the 0.4 percent rise that economists had been expecting and followed a survey released Thursday showing that the nation's big chain retail stores had a disappointing April which they blamed on rising gasoline prices and the slumping housing market.

The 0.7 percent increase in the Producer Price Index, which measures inflation pressures before they reach the consumer, was in line with expectations. The zero reading for the PPI excluding food and energy was better than expected, providing welcome news for officials at the Federal Reserve.

The Fed on Wednesday signaled that it continued to be more worried about the threat of inflation than the year-long slowdown in economic growth.

However, other economists believe the economy could be vulnerable to a possible recession, especially if the troubles in the housing sector deepen and the recent spike in gasoline prices triggers a cutback in consumer spending on other items.

Gasoline prices have surged to a record nationwide average of $3.07 per gallon, nearly 20 cents higher than two weeks earlier, according to the latest Lundberg Survey. That surpassed the old record of a nationwide average of $3.03 per gallon set last August.

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