02/17/2012 07:05 EST | Updated 04/18/2012 05:12 EDT

Canada Inflation January: Gas Prices Behind Bigger-Than-Expected Increase

OTTAWA - A one-month pop in gasoline prices propelled Canada's annual inflation rate up two notches to 2.5 per cent in January, reversing a recent trend toward moderating consumer price increases.

Pump prices climbed 2.8 per cent last month, partly due to political instability in the Middle East, contributing to upward pressure on both the monthly and annual indexes tracked by Statistics Canada.

The agency said Friday that consumer prices overall were 0.4 per cent higher — half a point on a seasonally adjusted basis — in January than they were in December, partly reversing the prior month's sharp 0.6 per cent decline.

As well, underlying core inflation — which excludes volatile items such as some fresh food and gas — rose to 2.1 per cent, one tick higher than the Bank of Canada's target.

But analysts said the uptick was a temporary phenomenon and unlikely to sway Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney from his low interest rate policy.

They had expected the monthly and annual measures to rise, largely on what was already known about gas prices, although not as sharply as occurred.

"Taking the downside surprise in prices for December along with the high-side surprise today pretty much brings us full circle to where many expected inflation to be at the start of the year," said Douglas Porter, deputy chief economist with BMO Capital Markets.

Keeping inflation in check is the top priority of the Bank of Canada, but governor Carney has exhibited a willingness to let the measure float above his two per cent target for most of 2011.

That isn't likely to change when the central banker next must consider his super low one-per-cent policy stance on March 8.

CIBC economist Emanuella Enenajor said the central bank believes inflation is due to moderate, and appears more concerned about the weak state of the Canadian economy, projected to grow a tepid two per cent this year.

"With growth in Canada lacklustre, and with inflation set to trend down measurably in the months ahead, today's print should have little policy implications," she said in a note to clients.

Scotiabank's Derek Holt agreed, noting that the "smoothed trend" on price hikes is heading south. Inflation spiked in March last year, so there should be a corresponding correction this spring.

The inflation reading also had little appreciable impact on the Canadian dollar, which remained above parity for most of Friday.

In January, economists were expecting the one-point increase in the Quebec sales tax that went into effect on Jan. 1 to provide a small boost.

That likely helped contribute to a 0.3 point jump in Quebec's inflation rate to 2.8 per cent, while Ontario also saw a significant 0.4 point rise to 2.4 per cent.

Another key contributor to inflation remains food, which in January cost 4.2 per cent more than a year ago, although food prices continue to moderate.

Excluding those two items, inflation would be a tepid 1.6 per cent, the agency said.

Overall, seven of the eight major price components that Statistics Canada tracks registered increases in January, the lone exception being recreation, education and reading.

Transportation rose 3.7 per cent on an annual basis, shelter costs increased by 2.1 per cent, household operations were higher as were clothing and footwear, and alcoholic beverages and tobacco. The rising cost of food was punctuated by a 9.9 per cent annual increase in bread, 8.3 per cent in fresh vegetables and a 6.5 per cent hike in meat prices.

Not all items cost more in January, however. Furniture cost 3.6 per cent less last month than a year ago and video equipment dropped 9.7 per cent. Mortgage interest costs and travel tours were also slightly less expensive.

Regionally, annual inflation was highest New Brunswick at 3.2 per cent last month and lowest in British Columbia, at 1.7 per cent.

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