updated 6/17/2008 11:45:03 AM ET 2008-06-17T15:45:03

Wholesale prices bolted ahead in May at the fastest pace in six months as energy and food costs marched higher.

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The Labor Department reported Tuesday that its Producer Price Index, which measures the costs of goods before they reach store shelves, shot up 1.4 percent in May. That was up from a modest 0.2 percent rise in April and marked the biggest increase since November.

However, stripping out energy and food prices, which can swing widely from month to month, the “core” rate of inflation rose 0.2 percent in May, an improvement from the prior month’s 0.4 percent increase. That suggested that other prices were better behaved.

The overall inflation rate of 1.4 percent was higher than the 1 percent rise many economists were forecasting. But the increase in core prices matched their expectations.

Meanwhile, a report from the Federal Reserve showed that industrial production dipped in May, underscoring the strain on factories from the deep housing slump. Output at the nation’s factories, mines and utilities fell 0.2 percent in May, following a 0.7 percent decline in April. The manufacturing report disappointed economists, who were forecasting a tiny 0.1 percent rise.

In other economic news, the Commerce Department reported that the number of new housing projects started in May fell by 3.3 percent to a 975,000 pace — the lowest in 17 years — as builders pulled back further given the market’s deep slump.

And, the broadest measure of trade, called the current account deficit, increased to $176.4 billion in the first quarter, up from $167.2 billion in the final quarter of last year.

The latest batch of economic reports underscore the challenges facing the country as well as Federal Reserve policymakers: plodding economic growth coupled with rising energy and food prices that raise fears of spurring an inflation outbreak. “Housing and manufacturing are still drifting lower, while prices are moving higher,” said Ken Mayland, president of ClearView Economics.

In morning trading, the Dow Jones industrials were down.

On the inflation front, energy prices jumped 4.9 percent in May, also the biggest rise since November. Diesel fuel prices galloped by 11.2 percent, gasoline prices were up by 9.3 percent and home heating oil increased by 8 percent.

Food prices also rose sharply. They increased by 0.8 percent in May, after being flat in April.

In May prices for pork went up 8 percent, the most since September 1999. Prices for fruits and melons rose 5.9 percent, the most since December. Prices for beef and veal, natural cheese and certain confectionery goods also posted sizable increases.

There are fears that eventually these energy and food costs will force companies to boost prices for lots of other goods and services, spreading inflation through the economy.

Given those concerns, many economists believe the Federal Reserve will hold interest rates steady at 2 percent, a four-year low, when its meets next week.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues have signaled that the Fed’s rate-cutting campaign, started last September to shore up economic growth, was over because of growing concerns about inflation.

Wall Street investors and some others predict the Fed will have to boost rates later this year to ward off an inflation flare-up. Others, however, believe the Fed will leave rates alone through the rest of this year. Raising rates too soon, they said, will hurt the fragile economy, which has pounded by housing, credit and financial problems.

Soaring energy and food prices are walloping consumers and businesses alike.

Last week, the government reported that consumer prices leaped by 0.6 percent in May, the biggest increase in six months. Those higher prices also are cutting into workers’ paychecks — further straining budgets.

Businesses, meanwhile, also are tightening the belt as the economy’s problems and soaring costs squeeze profits. Employers have cut jobs every month so far this year. That’s pushed the nation’s unemployment rate up to 5.5 percent in May, from 5 percent in April — the biggest one-month rise in two decades.

Wholesale prices are rising faster than consumer prices because businesses — for competitive or other reasons — have been limited in their ability to pass along all of their higher costs from energy and other raw materials to customers.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto sought to downplay the jump in wholesale prices, saying “it’s not quite as important” as the barometer on consumer prices.

Elsewhere in the wholesale inflation report, prices for light truck dipped 0.9 percent and prices for cars dropped 1 percent. Cigarette prices rose 2.5 percent and airplane prices increased 1.1 percent, the most since August 2004.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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