Rising gas prices drive inflation nationwide

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Inflation picked up slightly last month, as rising gas prices took a bigger bite out of consumers' wallets.

The government's key measure of inflation, the Consumer Price Index, showed prices rose 0.2% from December to January, slightly weaker than the 0.3% increase economists had predicted.

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Rising prices at the gas pump were a key factor, increasing 0.9% during the month, the Labor Department said. Improving U.S. economic data, including stronger job growth, and tension with Iran have been driving the price of oil and gasoline higher.

Gas prices ended last month at a national average of $3.443 a gallon, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report.

Tom Kloza, chief analyst at the Oil Price Information Service, recently forecast gas prices will hit a $4 national average by Memorial Day. They could even near $5 a gallon in certain regions.

Could this mark a repeat of early 2011?

Amid revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East, gas prices spiked 3.5% In January 2011 alone, and proceeded to keep rising, nearing $4 a gallon in May. Those higher prices trickled through to other goods and dragged on consumer spending. Economic growth slowed and job growth eventually slumped.

So far, the 2012 price hikes at the gas pump aren't as severe, but that's not to say employers aren't concerned.

About 68% of executives surveyed by the Corporate Executive Board expect cost pressures to increase in 2012. On Thursday, the Commerce Department's Producer Price Index showed a modest 0.2% increase in the cost of raw materials in January, after commodity prices fell the month before.

But higher costs won't necessarily lead to higher prices for consumers.

Businesses don't expect to see a major increase in consumer confidence this year, according to Michael Griffin, executive director and head of global research for CEB. It's that slack in the economy, amid high unemployment and slow wage growth, that is likely to keep companies from trying to pass higher costs on to consumers.

"Demand is still fairly weak out there so it's difficult for firms to raise prices," said Gus Faucher, senior economist at PNC Financial Services Group. "Consumers are shopping around and still watching their costs."

Year over year, the inflation report showed consumer prices were up 2.9% in January, barely changed from a 3% annual inflation rate in December.

The CPI report also showed food prices rose 0.2% in January, mainly driven by higher prices at restaurants. Prices at grocery stores barely changed. Overall, food prices up 4.4% over a year ago.

Core CPI, which strips out volatile food and energy, showed consumer prices rose 0.2% in January, and 2.3% year-over-year.

Core inflation is at its highest level since September 2008, when the rate was 2.5%.