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U.S. consumer spending up, inflation accelerates

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U.S. consumer spending rose for an eighth straight month in February, but much of the gain went to cover rising food and energy prices, providing little lift to the economy.
   
Overall consumer spending rose 0.7 percent last month after a 0.3-percent increase in January and inflation accelerated at its fastest pace since June 2009, the Commerce Department said on Monday. Spending adjusted for inflation rose just 0.3 percent following a flat reading in January.
   
"On balance the report is a mixed bag of news highlighting that rising prices are taking some steam out of recent momentum, but consumers remain on a moderate track of spending growth," said Julia Coronado, a senior economist at BNP Paribas in New York.
   
Economists polled by Reuters had expected spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of U.S. economic activity, to advance 0.6 percent.
   
A second report showed pending sales of previously owned homes unexpectedly rose in February, pointing to a rebound in home sales in March after a string of poor housing market data. The National Association of Realtors said its Pending Home Sales Index, based on contracts signed in February, increased 2.1 percent to 90.8.
   
Economists had expected the index, which leads existing home sales by a month or two, to fall 1.0 percent.
       
SPENDING SEEN SLOWING
   
After increasing at its fastest clip in four years in the final three months of 2010, consumer spending is expected to slow in the first quarter, with rising energy and food prices stealing from spending on other goods and services.
   
Spending grew at a 4.0-percent annual rate in the fourth quarter, helping to lift overall economic growth to a 3.1-percent pace during the quarter from 2.6 percent in the July-September period.
   
"Real spending growth, the base on which GDP is built, slowed to 2.1 percent in the three months ending in February. Unless it snaps back in March, which is unlikely with gas prices still rising, GDP growth is likely to be less than 2.5 percent," said Chris Low, chief economist at FTN Financial in New York.
   
High food and energy prices pushed up overall inflation last month. The Commerce Department said the personal consumption expenditures price (PCE) index rose 0.4 percent, the fastest since June 2009, after gaining 0.3 percent in January
   
A core measure of inflation closely watched by the Federal Reserve, the core PCE index excluding food and energy, increased 0.2 percent after rising by the same margin in January.
   
In the 12 months through January, the core PCE index rose 0.9 percent, the fastest rise in four months, after rising 0.8 percent in January.
   
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has said high food and energy costs should prove transitory, but that the central bank was prepared to act if needed to ensure an inflation psychology does not take root.
   
Incomes rose 0.3 percent last month after rising 1.2 percent in January. That compared with economists' expectations for a 0.4-percent gain.
   
With consumption outpacing the growth in incomes, savings fell to $676.7 billion US from $710.5 billion in January.
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