updated 3/17/2009 9:19:52 AM ET 2009-03-17T13:19:52

Wholesale prices edged up a tiny 0.1 percent in February as a big decline in food prices offset a second monthly increase in energy costs, the Labor Department reported Tuesday.

Major Market Indices

The increase was much lower than the 0.8 percent surge in January and smaller than the 0.4 percent increase economists had expected. Compared with a year ago, wholesale prices are actually down 1.3 percent.

Core inflation, which excludes energy and food, edged up 0.2 percent in February, only slightly higher than the 0.1 percent gain economists had expected. Core prices had risen 0.4 percent in January.

Separately, the Commerce Department reported that housing construction surged 22.2 percent in February to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 583,000 units. Even with the big gain, which took economists by surprise, construction activity is 47.3 percent below the level of a year ago as the housing sector remains mired in its worst slump in decades.

Only last summer, officials at the Federal Reserve had started to worry that a surge in energy costs could spread to other areas of the economy and boost inflation to unacceptable levels. But after the financial crisis struck in the fall, the Fed switched signals and is now aggressively fighting a deepening recession with no real threat of inflation.

On Wednesday, Fed officials are expected to signal that they will continue to keep a key interest rate at a record low near zero percent for as long as necessary and use other unorthodox means to jump-start the economy.

The Fed has the leeway to focus on the weak economy because inflation pressures are expected to remain law in the face of widespread layoffs that are depressing wage demands.

The 0.1 percent rise in wholesale inflation in February reflected a 1.3 percent increase in energy prices, which have been rising for two months after having retreated for five straight months.

Gasoline prices jumped 8.7 percent in February after a 15 percent surge in January.

Food costs fell for a third straight month, dropping 1.6 percent in February, the biggest one-month decline in three years. The costs of eggs, fruits, vegetables and dairy products were all down.

Outside of food and energy, prices for cigarettes rose 2.7 percent, the biggest increase in two years, while the price of light trucks rose 1.3 percent, a gain that is not expected to last given the weakness in auto sales.

Prices for computers dropped 4.5 percent, the biggest one-month fall since January 2005.

Inflation is not expected be a problem for some time to come given the prolonged recession, which is already the longest downturn in a quarter-century. Overall economic growth fell at an annual rate of 6.2 percent in the October-December quarter and many economists expect the drop in the gross domestic product for the current quarter will be a similarly steep decline.

Many economists say the Fed will not even contemplate interest rate increases until the unemployment rate, which soared to a 25-year high of 8.1 percent in February, declines.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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