Inflation rate hits 17-year high

WASHINGTON — Higher costs for energy and food last year pushed inflation up by the largest amount in 17 years, even though prices generally remained tame outside of those two areas. Meanwhile, industrial output was flat in December, more evidence of a significant slowdown in the economy.

Consumer prices rose by 4.1 percent for all of 2007, up sharply from a 2.5 percent increase in 2006, the Labor Department said Wednesday. Consumers felt the pain when they filled up their gas tanks or shopped for groceries. Prices for both energy and food shot up by the largest amount since 1990.

In a second report, the Federal Reserve said that output at the nation’s factories, mines and utilities showed no growth in December, adding to a string of weak economic reports showing that the economy was slowing at the end of last year.

That weakness has shown up in the biggest one-month jump in unemployment since the 2001 terrorist attacks and billions of dollars in losses at many of the country’s biggest financial institutions. Citigroup Inc. reported Tuesday it had suffered a $10 billion loss for the last three months of 2007, reflecting bad bets on investments backed by subprime mortgages.

The Dow Jones industrial average plunged by 277 points on Tuesday and fell even further on Wednesday as Intel reported weak earnings for the fourth quarter. The Dow was down by 26 points in late morning trading.

The unchanged industrial output in December was the poorest showing since industrial output actually fell by 0.5 percent in October. Output had been up by 0.3 percent in November.

The December weakness reflected flat output at U.S. factories, a tiny 0.1 percent rise in the mining industry and a 0.2 percent drop at the nation’s utilities.

The Consumer Price Index rose by 0.3 percent in December, slower than the 0.8 percent in November, as food costs were flat for the month and energy prices rose by 0.9 percent after an even bigger 5.7 percent jump in November.

Outside of food and energy, inflation rose a more moderate 0.2 percent in December. This measure of core inflation rose by 2.4 percent for all of 2007, down slightly from a 2.6 percent increase in 2006.

The Federal Reserve is closely watching to see whether the jump in food and energy becomes more widespread and starts pushing core inflation higher.

Analysts said that with core prices generally remaining well-behaved, it will give the central bank the leeway to cut interest rates further to battle a serious economic slowdown triggered by a steep slump in housing and a spreading credit crisis.

The expectation is that the Fed will cut a key rate by a half-point when officials meet at the end of this month. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke raised hopes for further rate cuts in a speech last week when he said that economic risks had grown significantly in recent weeks.

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