Inflation Tame Signals Fed Likely to Stay With Stimulus

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Subdued inflation numbers on Tuesday indicated to investors that the Federal Reserve has the scope to keep its monetary easing program going.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported inflation within the Fed's comfort zone. On an annual basis, the core CPI excluding food and energy costs moderated slightly to 1.9% in March from 2% in February, and below the bank's 2% target.

"The central bank is able to concentrate on strengthening growth to a rate that puts sustained downward pressure on the unemployment rate," Paul Ferley, assistant chief economist at Royal Bank of Canada, said in a note. "This is expected to result in the central bank continuing asset purchases through the end of this year and maintaining fed funds within the current range of 0% to 0.25% likely into 2015."

The Consumer Price Index fell 0.2% in March, led by a decline in gasoline prices, after increasing 0.7% in February. Economists had been expecting the March rate to be unchanged. The core CPI rose 0.1% after increasing 0.2%; the consensus was for a rise of 0.2%.

For the most part, headline economic numbers beat expectations Tuesday, but the details were mixed and underscored the continued weakness in the economic recovery that was keeping inflation contained.

The Census Bureau said housing starts increased to a seasonally-adjusted annual rate of 1.036 million in March from a 968,000 pace in February, though all of it was attributable to multi-family housing starts which tend to be volatile on a month-to-month basis. Single-family starts dropped 4.8% month-over-month.

The report also said that building permits came in at 902,000, down from a downwardly-revised 939,000 and below expectations of a 940,000 annual rate.

Economists are expected to lower their estimates on the Conference Board's Leading Economic Index which predicts turning points in the U.S. economy. The March report is expected on Thursday.

Cooper Howes, a New York-based economist at Barclays, expects a 0.1% month-on-month increase in the index for March, down from a previous forecast of 0.2%. Howes identified strength in financial indicators such as interest rate spreads and equity markets thereby offsetting negative contributions from building permits, consumer confidence and the new orders component of the manufacturing ISM.

The Federal Reserve reported that industrial production rose 0.4% in March compared to 0.2% in February, due in part to utility generation which offset a decline in manufacturing.

Written by Andrea Tse in New York

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