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Wholesale Prices Rise Modestly

Prices at the wholesale level rose a modest 0.2 percent in November despite a sharp jump in energy costs that overwhelmed a rise in food prices.

The Labor Department reported Friday that the increase in its Producer Price Index, which measures inflation pressures before they reach the consumer, followed a 0.1 percent decline in October and was on target with many analysts' expectations.

Not counting the volatile energy and food categories, the core rate of inflation at the wholesale level was flat in November, following a moderate 0.3 percent increase in October.

That was an even better showing on inflation than many analysts were forecasting. They were anticipating that the core rate would rise by 0.1 percent.

The increase in wholesale prices, if matched at the consumer level, could ease concerns about a potential outbreak of inflation.

The Federal Reserve has raised interest rates three times this year to slow the red-hot economy and keep inflation under control. Many economists believe the Fed will leave rates unchanged at its next meeting on Dec. 21, citing concerns about problems that may arise from the Y2K computer changeover.

But economists expect the central bank will bump up rates again early next year, given continuing strong growth.

Financial markets will be looking at FridayÂ's report for any clue as to what the Fed may do with interest rates.

So far this year, wholesale prices have been rising at an annual rate of 2.9 percent, compared with no change for all of 1998. The pickup in this year's wholesale prices has been coming from big increases in energy costs, which had been declining for much of 1998.

In November, energy costs rose a sizable 1.4 percent, the biggest increase since a 2.2 percent spike in September.

The cost of crude oil hit its highest level in mid-November since January 1991, when war in the Persian Gulf drove up prices. The rising price of crude oil reflects a decision by oil-producing nations to limit production as well as increased demand from recovering economies in Asia and for winter heating fuel.

Heating-oil prices increased by a whopping 7.5 percent in November, the largest gain since a 15.2 percent increase in July, and residential natural gas rose by 2.7 percent, the biggest jump in two years.

On Thursday, the Clinton administration cautioned that "dangerously high" oil prices could affect economic growth and said it was prepared to intervene if costs continue to soar.

But gasoline prices rose only 0.1 percent in November, while residential electric power increased by 0.7 percent, the report said.

Other factors also contributed to keeping overall wholesale prices tame. The price of light trucks fell by 1.1 percent in November, the biggest drop since June 1998, and car prices rose just 0.2 percent after two straight months of sharp increases.