The Week Ahead

CONSUMER PRICE INDEX Wednesday, Feb. 19, 8:30 a.m.

Consumer prices are expected to post a mild 0.2% increase in January, according to economists surveyed by MMS International, a division of McGraw-Hill Inc. This advance would be slightly less than the 0.3% rise in December. Falling oil prices are holding down the inflation rate. However, excluding food and energy costs, the consumer price index might show a bigger gain in January, possibly as high as 0.5%. The Labor Dept. now includes spring apparel in its January survey, and the higher cost of these clothes may offset the discounts on winter merchandise. Also, higher prices for public transportation and hotel rooms are expected to push up the core inflation rate. In December, the CPI, excluding food and energy, rose 0.3%. Even with the large gain, however, the yearly core rate of inflation should remain near 4%, and the total CPI probably increased by less than 3%.

HOUSING STARTS Wednesday, Feb. 19, 8:30 a.m.

The MMS consensus forecasts that housing starts rose slightly in January, to an annual rate of 1.13 million from 1.1 million in December. The housing recovery continues to get some lift from low mortgage rates. If the White House proposal to give a tax credit for first-time home buyers is enacted, home building may show stronger gains in the spring.

MERCHANDISE TRADE DEFICIT Thursday, Feb. 20, 8:30 a.m.

The foreign trade deficit likely widened to about $4.7 billion in December, from $3.6 billion in November. Exports, which were at a record high of $37.5 billion in November, probably fell slightly in December, to $37 billion, say the MMS economists. And imports, which dropped a steep 5.5% in November, likely increased to $41.7 billion in the following month. That's indicated by a gain in customs duty payments in December. The expected increase in the trade deficit would mean that the net export sector probably did not add as much to real economic growth in the fourth quarter as first thought by the Commerce Dept.