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The market let out a sigh of relief yesterday as consumer prices -- measured by the CPI -- rose for the second month in a row. Reporting a seasonally adjusted 0.4% increase in February, fears that our ailing economy was spiraling into a period of deflation were eased. However, Fools should read between the lines for a more accurate analysis.
Three categories boosted the overall index level: energy, apparel, and transportation.
Digging deeper, energy prices jumped 3.3% on top of a 1.7% increase last month. Gasoline prices rose 8.3%. I'm unconvinced this two-month trend is indicative of a nondeflationary economy, as energy prices fell dramatically during the backend of 2008. The energy index is still 29.2% lower than it was during its July 2008 peak, and the gasoline index is down 44%.
Apparel contributed a 1.3% increase. However, this was only because retailers such as Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE: ANF ) , Macy's (NYSE: M ) , and Talbots (NYSE: TLB ) have finally sold off holiday inventory at deep discounts and are in the process of turning stores over to newer and pricier spring merchandise.
Perhaps the most suspicious increase of all was the 1.9% increase in the transportation category. Vehicle manufacturers like Ford (NYSE: F ) and General Motors (NYSE: GM ) have reported the worst sales seen in the last several decades, and heavy incentives are being implemented to attract consumers.
In short, I don't find the overall 0.4% increase meaningful. Peeking behind the figure reveals price increases that are neither sustainable nor indicative that deflation is out of the question.
Overall, I'm puzzled by the market's concern for deflation. Personally, I believe we may experience a slightly deflationary environment in the short run. I think it's inevitable as we allow the recession to run its course through the economy. However, what the market and our government really need to be fearful of is the inflationary road in the long run, after the effects of the Fed's monetary and stimulus efforts trickle through the economy.