That was the picture sketched Wednesday by government data showing an economy growing, however slowly.
Higher energy prices sent overall consumer prices higher in November. But after stripping out volatile energy and food prices, inflation disappeared last month. That gives the Federal Reserve, ending a two-day meeting Wednesday, leeway to hold its key interest rate at a record low to aid the recovery.
At the same time, home construction rebounded in November after a setback in October. And applications for new building permits - a gauge of future activity -. A housing recovery is critical to helping nurture the overall economy.
Also Wednesday, the government said its broadest measure of foreign tradein the July-September quarter, signaling higher demand for foreign goods. That, too, is seen as a sign of a strengthening economy.
The current account is the broadest measure of trade because it includes not only trade in goods and services but also investment flows among countries.
The Consumer Price Index, the government's most closely watched inflation barometer, rose 0.4 percent in November, up from a 0.3 percent increase in October, the Labor Department said.
But "core" inflation, which excludes energy and food, was flat, signaling that inflation isn't rising through the economy. It was the first time core inflation was unchanged after 10 straight monthly increases.
In the months ahead, companies will find it difficult to jack up prices when consumers are expected to remain cautious, the job market is weak and the recovery is slow, analysts say.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke says he thinks slack in the economy - meaning idle plants and the weak job market - will keep inflation in check. The Fed is expected Wednesday afternoon to announce that it's leaving interest rates at a record low. It may also strike an upbeat note about the economy's progress.
The government said energy prices rose 4.1 percent last month, reflecting more expensive fuel oil and gasoline. Energy prices, though, are already in retreat. Oil prices are down about 10 percent this month.
Food prices, meanwhile, edged up 0.1 percent for the second month in a row. Falling prices for dairy products and nonalcholic drinks helped blunt small increases for meat, cereals and baked goods, and fruits and vegetables.
Elsewhere, prices for clothing fell as retailers struggled to lure shoppers. Costs for recreation and for shelter also were down. But prices for airline fares, new cars, medical care and tobacco products all rose.
Wednesday's report suggests that companies remain reluctant to pass along all their higher costs to customers.
The government on Tuesday reported that its Producer Price Index, which measures the costs of goods before they reach store shelves, jumped 1.8 percent in November. That was more than double the gain analysts had expected. Higher-priced energy products and trucks drove the increase.
In the Commerce Department's report on housing starts, it said construction of new homes and apartments rose 8.9 percent in November to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 574,000 units. The gain represented strength in all areas of the country, though the rise was slightly lower than economists had expected.
Applications for new building permits rose 6 percent to an annual rate of 584,000 units, a stronger showing than economists had predicted.
Economists think the current account deficit will continue to widen next year - but not reach the record levels seen previously because a weaker dollar will boost U.S. exports.
For the third quarter, the deficit in goods widened to $132.1 billion, up from $115.5 billion in the second quarter. America's surplus in services, items such as airline travel, shipping and financial services, widened slightly to $34.8 billion from $34.2 billion in the previous quarter.
The surplus on investment income widened to $23.7 billion from $16.7 billion. That means Americans earned more on their overseas investments than foreigners earned on their U.S. investments.
U.S. companies have been seeing export sales rise in recent months. Economists say that continued strength in exports will be vital to the economy as it struggles to emerge from the worst recession since the 1930s.
The rise in exports has been helped by a decline of about 10 percent in the value of the dollar against a group of major currencies since the U.S. currency hit a high for this year in March. A weaker dollar makes American products cheaper and more competitive on overseas markets.