WASHINGTON - Consumer prices galloped ahead in January at the fastest pace in four months, especially pinching the wallets of motorists and other energy users.

The latest picture of the nation's pricing climate, released by the Labor Depart-ment on Wednesday, reinforced expectations that Fed-eral Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues will boost interest rates in the months ahead to blunt inflation.

The government's most closely watched inflation baro-meter, the Consumer Price Index, advanced by 0.7 percent, compared with a 0.1 percent dip in December. The seesaw pattern mostly reflects gyrating energy prices.

Rising inflation is straining families' budgets. A separate report showed that workers' average weekly earnings, adjusted for inflation, dropped by 0.4 percent in January compared with a year ago. For most workers last year, paychecks didn't keep pace with inflation.

While the Bush administration has talked often about the generally good shape of the economy, Democrats have expressed worries about low-and middle-income families struggling under the weight of rising prices and living paycheck to paycheck.

The main culprits behind January's higher CPI reading were rising energy and food prices.

Excluding energy and food costs, though, "core" prices rose by a modest 0.2 percent in January, following a 0.1 percent increase in December. More expensive clothing and new cars were mostly blamed for the slight pickup in core inflation.

By excluding energy and food prices, which can swing widely from month to month, the core inflation gauge gives economists a better sense of how other prices are acting. Fed officials don't want to see elevated energy prices feeding into the retail prices of lots of other goods and services, something that would lead to a broader bout of inflation spreading through the economy.

To fend off inflation, the Fed last month boosted a key interest rate to 4.50 percent, the highest in nearly five years.

From an economic point of view, core inflation - for now - isn't overly worrisome but it is "generating some angst within the Fed," said Sherry Cooper, chief economist at BMO Nesbitt Burns. "The risks remain skewed to a mild up-creep in core inflation during the months ahead" and that will keep the Fed on a rate-raising path, she predicted.

Cooper and other economists said the Fed is on track for another rate increase on March 27-28 - Bernanke's first meeting as Fed chief - and may bump up rates again at the following session on May 10. Either way, the Fed is nearing the end of its nearly two-year credit tightening campaign, analysts said.

On Wall Street, investors were cheered that the core inflation reading was in line with forecasts and that crude oil prices calmed down in trading Wednesday. The Dow Jones industrials gained 68.11 points to close at 11,137.17.

In the inflation report, January's 0.7 percent jump in overall consumer prices was the biggest since a 1.2 percent leap in September when the Gulf Coast hurricanes propelled gasoline prices past $3 a gallon and other energy prices skyward.

Energy prices in January rose 5 percent, the most since an 11.8 percent surge in September. Gasoline prices last month went up 6.4 percent, also the biggest increase since September. Electricity prices soared 5.5 percent, the largest one-month rise on record. That huge gain reflected efforts by utilities to pass on to consumers their higher fuel costs. Natural gas prices rose 1.7 percent, the most since October.

Food prices, meanwhile, increased 0.5 percent in January, the most in nine months. Rising prices for fruits, vegetables, dairy products and beef and veal, swamped falling prices for poultry and pork.

The report also showed that airfares in January climbed by 1.2 percent, the most since October. New car prices rose 0.6 percent, the biggest gain in a year. Clothing prices went up 0.3 percent, the largest increase since August.

Education prices, including tuition and books, rose a hefty 0.7 percent last month. Medical care, a category that like education generally is a sore spot for consumers' pocketbooks, went up by just 0.1 percent in January. That reflected a record 0.8 percent drop in the price of physicians' services.


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