msnbc.com news services
updated 4/15/2008 11:27:38 AM ET 2008-04-15T15:27:38

Inflation at the wholesale level soared in March at nearly triple the rate that had been expected as the costs of energy and food both climbed rapidly.

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The Labor Department reported Tuesday that wholesale prices, which measure the amount of money domestic companies receive for their products, rose by 1.1 percent last month, the largest increase since a 2.6 percent rise last November, which had been the biggest one-month jump in 33 years.

Analysts had been expecting a much more moderate 0.4 percent rise in the gauge of wholesale prices, although there are growing fears that higher energy prices will weigh on corporate earnings and add to a wider economic slowdown.

Soaring energy costs have buoyed producer prices and spilled into broader measures of inflation in a worrying fashion for the Federal Reserve, even as it has slashed interest rates to buffer growth from the housing crisis.

“The Fed has put a lot of stock to the idea that demand will soften [and that] will bring inflation down. But commodity prices continue to go up,” said Keith Hembre, chief economist at FAF Advisors in Minneapolis.

Core inflation, which excludes energy and food, was better behaved last month, rising by just 0.2 percent, down from a worrisome 0.5 percent rise in February.

For the past 12 months, wholesale prices are up by 6.9 percent and core inflation is up by 2.7 percent, the biggest year-over-year increase in nearly two years.

The inflation pressures are occurring at a time when the overall economy is slowing and many analysts believe may have toppled into a recession. That raises concerns that the country could be facing another bout of stagflation, the malady that last occurred in the 1970s when economic growth stagnated but inflation kept rising.

Such a development would put the Federal Reserve in a bind. The central bank has been cutting interest rates in an effort to combat the current slowdown. However, if inflation pressures keep rising, it might be forced to stop cutting interest rates for fear that it would make inflation worse.

For March, energy prices jumped 2.9 percent, the biggest increase since November. The price of gasoline was up 1.3 percent while natural gas rose by 4.2 percent. Home heating oil shot up by 13.1 percent and diesel fuel, used to power the nation’s trucking fleet, increased by 15.3 percent.

Analysts believe the economy will be hit with more energy pressures in coming months, reflecting the fact that crude oil costs are remaining at record levels above $111 per barrel.

Food costs rose by 1.2 percent in March, reflecting big increases in the price of vegetables, rice, and beef.

Outside of food and energy, the price of soap and detergents jumped 2 percent, the biggest gain in more than two years, while pet food increased by 1.3 percent.

However, the price of new cars dropped by 0.2 percent and the cost of light trucks was down 0.3 percent, indicating the struggles that automakers face as a weak economy dampens demand.

The government will report on consumer prices on Wednesday with the expectation that they rose by 0.3 percent in March.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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