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Inflation still mostly hiding

By Mark Hamrick ·
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Posted: 3 pm ET

It has been both the proverbial blessing and curse in the years since the financial crisis: Broad-based inflation has remained mostly absent.

It is easy to immediately find yourself wondering: What's so bad about that? But in many ways, prices that aren't rising much have impacts that are not so benign, including persistently low interest rates and slow wage growth. The toll of teensy-weensy inflation is often overlooked.

That's just part of the story as we sort through the latest collection of economic indicators.

Prices just creeping higher

As a gauge of what's been happening lately with retail prices, the Labor Department is reporting that the Consumer Price Index edged up 0.2 percent in March.  Over the past year, prices at the consumer level rose just 1.5 percent.

The increase in so-called core prices, excluding food and energy, was also 0.2 percent during March. Over the past year, core prices have risen just a bit more than the broader measure of inflation, going up 1.7 percent.

Food prices give indigestion

While the headlines on inflation have had a kind of "Nothing to see here, move along" tone to them, there are some unnerving trends beneath the surface.

Have you noticed rising prices at the supermarket? Some of the increases in food prices stem from surging feed costs resulting from adverse weather conditions.

"The portions of the country that escaped the polar vortex suffered a drought," writes Diane Swonk, chief economist with Mesirow Financial. "Prices for everything from meats, poultry, fish and eggs are rising more rapidly for the second month in a row."

Plus, prices for fruits and vegetables remain a worry due to factors including the continuing drought in California and bacteria reducing Florida's orange groves.

Tested by college costs

Students and parents shelling out money for college and university tuition have been sweating it out for years now, demonstrating that problematic inflation in just one or two areas can cause significant financial stress.

Economist Ken Mayland with ClearView Economics points out that the CPI report shows college tuition and fees rose 0.4 percent in March after a 0.7 percent increase the previous month. Compared with a year ago, tuition and fees were up 3.9 percent, Mayland says, or about double the rate of inflation overall.

Home prices head upstairs

Rising home prices are mostly a good news story for homeowners, but they're not necessarily drawing cheers from aspiring first-time buyers.  Many of us have just been through the (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime, painful experience of imploding home prices.

As for the rebound, the latest 20-city index from S&P/Case-Shiller indicates that home prices were up 13.2 percent in January. Still, there are cities that haven't recovered everything that was lost in the housing bust. Las Vegas prices are still 45 percent below their August 2006 peak.

Sluggish salaries, savings rates

How's your paycheck doing? The Labor Department says average hourly earnings have risen 2.1 percent over the past year. But the growth in March was down a bit compared with the previous month, or moving in the wrong direction for Americans hoping to make financial progress.

Meanwhile, as we've noted at Bankrate many times in recent years, savings rates have been paltry. The latest weekly survey finds interest rates remain below 1 percent for both one- and five-year certificates of deposit.

Inflation: Your results may vary

One risk when looking at economic statistics is that they tend to generalize for the entire population, when we know that there can be vast differences between individuals and regions.

Poverty has grown since the recession, and fewer people identify themselves as part of the middle class. A surge in food prices or tuition weighs most heavily on those with lower incomes, or less financial room to spare.

Inflation "remains too cool for an economy that has been stagnant for too long," says Swonk. "It is also important to note that inflation for wealthier households is very different than inflation for poorer households."

How are you doing juggling prices with your own income?

What if inflation suddenly started heating up? See the likely winners and losers.

Follow me on Twitter: @Hamrickisms


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