03/23/2012 07:06 EDT | Updated 05/23/2012 05:12 EDT

Canada Inflation: February Sees Jump As Gas, Food Push Prices Up


OTTAWA - Consumer prices continued to gain steam in Canada last month, as higher prices for key goods like gasoline and food pushed the rate of inflation up a notch to 2.6 per cent.

As well, underlying core inflation — which excludes volatile items such as energy and fresh foods — rose two notches to 2.3 per cent, above the Bank of Canada's two-per-cent target line.

On a month-to-month basis, overall price increases equalled January's 0.4 per cent pop.

The first two months of 2012 has seen prices rise on both the monthly and annual meters, reversing what had been a generally downward trajectory that began last May.

Analysts, however, doubted inflation's staying power, given the slack in the economy and muted wage increases. As well, next month should see a fall-back given last spring's sharp run-up in the world price of oil in the wake of Middle East uprisings.

"We are seeing spunk in recent inflationary readings, (but) we believe that this momentum will wane in the ensuing months as energy price growth decelerates," said TD bank economist Sonya Gulati.

"If, however, the U.S. economic recovery continues to pick up speed and/or European developments turn out to be more positive, then Canadian inflation pressures may force the Bank of Canada to begin monetary policy tightening earlier than the mid-2013 timeline we have incorporated into our forecast."

In the last public statement on prices in early March, the Bank of Canada's noted the profile for both core and headline inflation had been firmer than expected, but still predicted the rate would moderate to about two per cent.

That's about right, believes Bank of Montreal economist Douglas Porter, although he cautioned there was a key risk. If political tensions between Iran and the West escalate, oil, which is already at levels well north of fundamentals, would cause a temporary spike in inflation. The price of oil is a major portion in the overall make-up of the consumer price index, affecting gasoline, heating and transportation costs.

"I think people should be very careful in just assuming gasoline prices are going to recede," Porter said.

"I don't believe (inflation) would get away from us because wages are so restrained almost everywhere, but we can certainly have temporary burst in inflation if we have some sort of conflict in the Middle East."

It is unclear whether the central bank would look through a temporary spike. Despite uneasiness that super-low interest rates are luring Canadians into unsustainable debt levels, the bank has kept the policy rate anchored at one per cent since September 2010, fearing a hike would give lift to the dollar and harm the economy.

Middle East concerns are already playing a role in driving up energy prices.

Pump prices rose 2.6 per cent over January and were 8.9 per cent more than a year ago, helping drive up the transportation component of the index by 4.2 per cent annually. As well, electricity costs increased by 8.7 per cent.

Meanwhile, the cost of food continued to rise faster than inflation overall — it was 4.1 per cent higher than a year ago, as the cost of meat rose 7.1 per cent and bread by 7.2 per cent.

In general, Statistics Canada said seven of the eight major sub-groups of goods it tracks rose in February, including shelter, household operations, clothing and footwear, health and personal services, and alcoholic beverages and tobacco.

Only recreation, education and reading saw a pull-back in prices from a year ago.

Regionally, Quebec and Ontario both experienced significant increases in annual inflation. Prices rose by four-tenths of a point to 3.2 per cent in Quebec, thanks to a 13.4 per cent pop in gas, while Ontario's rate rose half a point to 2.9 per cent as electricity costs rose 8.9 per cent.

On the other side of the ledger, annual inflation took a dip in Alberta, falling a full point to 1.9 per cent.

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