The cost of living in the U.S. climbed more than forecast and unemployment claims rose, battering the confidence of Americans squeezed by stagnant wages and higher prices of food, housing and energy.
The consumer-price index increased 0.4 percent in August, and jobless claims climbed by 11,000 to 428,000 in the week ended Sept. 10, Labor Department figures showed today in Washington. The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index held last week at the second-lowest level of 2011 as the most households in three years said it was a bad time to spend.
Unemployment stuck around 9 percent may prompt consumers to keep cutting back, hurting sales at companies like Best Buy Co. and prompting Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke to consider additional measures to spur growth when central bankers meet next week. A report from the Fed today showed manufacturing, a mainstay of the recovery, continued to support the economy last month.
“The inflation numbers have to raise concern but growth is going to be any policy maker’s main concern right now,” said Kurt Rankin, an economist at PNC Financial Services Group Inc. in Pittsburgh. “The recovery is just north of stagnant.”
Stocks rallied after the European Central Bank announced new liquidity measures in cooperation with the Fed. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index climbed 1.7 percent to 1,209.11 at the 4 p.m. close in New York.
Economists projected a 0.2 percent gain in consumer prices, according to the median forecast in a Bloomberg News survey of 84 economists.
The results included a 0.4 percent jump in rents, the most since June 2008. Shelter costs climbed 0.2 percent. Energy costs increased 1.2 percent from a month earlier, and gasoline prices climbed 1.9 percent.
Companies such as Mooresville, North Carolina-based Lowe’s Cos., the second-largest home-improvement retailer, are contending with rising costs and weak demand. The company has been negotiating with vendors to keep prices down while passing some increases onto consumers.
“Our approach is to negotiate as hard as we can to the lowest cost possible,” Robert Gfeller, executive vice president for merchandising at Lowe’s, said in a teleconference Sept. 7. “Where we have taken (increased) pricing, we have moved some through to retail.”
Today’s report showed inflation-adjusted hourly wages fell 0.6 percent in August, the most since July 2008, and were down 1.9 percent from the same month a year ago.
The wage squeeze is taking a toll on consumer confidence. The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index was minus 49.3 in the period to Sept. 11, near this year’s low of minus 49.4 reached in May. The buying climate gauge slumped to the lowest level since October 2008.
“The consumer is making very measured choices,” Best Buy Chief Executive Officer Brian Dunn said in a Sept. 13 telephone interview. “I don’t think it’s a year where someone is going to buy a TV and a tablet and a new smartphone and go to Disneyland.”
Richfield, Minnesota-based Best Buy, the world’s largest consumer-electronics retailer, this week cut its full-year earnings forecast and reported a 30 percent decline in second- quarter profit.
Jobless claims climbed to the highest level since the end of June in a week that included the Labor Day holiday, a Labor Department report showed. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg projected a drop in claims to 411,000, according to the median forecast.
Pressure on Obama
Bank of America Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. are among companies planning to keep trimming payrolls, raising the risk that consumer spending will stagnate. Signs the labor market is struggling to gain traction puts more pressure on President Barack Obama, lawmakers and the Fed for additional steps to spur the economy.
Bernanke said policy makers will discuss the tools they could use to boost the recovery at their next meeting Sept. 20- 21 and stand ready to use them if necessary.
Fed officials “are prepared to employ these tools as appropriate to promote a stronger economic recovery in the context of price stability,” Bernanke said in a Sept. 8 speech Minneapolis.
“We see little indication that the higher rate of inflation experienced so far this year has become ingrained in the economy,” he said, citing the waning of “transitory” influences like high fuel prices and global supply disruptions linked to Japan’s March earthquake and tsunami.
Obama announced a jobs plan before a joint session of Congress on Sept. 8, calling for an extension of a payroll-tax break for Americans and unemployment assistance. He also pushed for a payroll tax break for small businesses, an increase in infrastructure spending and more aid for cash-strapped state governments.
Manufacturing remains a pillar of growth as overseas demand and capital spending by American companies keep assembly lines busy.
Output at factories, mines and utilities climbed 0.2 percent after a 0.9 percent gain in July, today’s Fed report showed. Economists had forecast no change, according to the median estimate in a Bloomberg survey.
Factory production, which makes up 75 percent of the total, advanced 0.5 percent. Mining, which includes oil drilling, increased 1.2 percent. Utility output dropped 3 percent, as temperatures moderated from the prior month, after a 2.8 percent gain.
Automakers are recovering after a temporary shortage of parts following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan that constrained sales and production.
The output of motor vehicles and parts increased 1.7 percent after a 4.5 percent jump a month earlier, today’s report showed. Excluding autos and parts, manufacturing climbed 0.4 percent after a 0.3 percent July increase.
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