In one of the more perverse characteristics of an economic slowdown, the sluggish growth in the U.S. economy is actually benefiting consumers by holding inflation in check.

The Labor Department reported this morning that the Consumer Price Index advanced 0.2% on a seasonally adjusted basis, in line with the expectations of private economists. The index was up only 0.1% minus food and energy, the so-called "core" inflation rate.

The April numbers put overall inflation at 3.9% year-over-year and the core rate at 2.3%, the latter slightly above the Federal Reserve's target rate of 1.5% to 2.0%.

Part of the reason for the relatively modest increase, however, was a 1.6% decrease in April from March in the index for petroleum-based energy. This is sure to reverse in May as gasoline prices have risen precipitously along with the price of crude oil.

Among the component indices, the index for energy was virtually unchanged after advancing 1.9% in March, including the drop in petroleum-based energy which was offset by a 2.5% increase in the index for energy services. The food index rose 0.9% in April, with the index for food at home up 1.5%, reflecting substantial increases in all six major grocery store food groups. Downturns in the indices for public transportation, for household furnishings and operations, and for recreation, coupled with a larger decline in the index for lodging away from home, more than offset an upturn in the index for apparel.

The index for housing rose 0.3% in April. The index for household energy was up for the third consecutive month by large increase 2.6% in April, with the fuel-oil index up 4.4%, up 52.6% from April 2007. The indices for natural gas and electricity rose 4.8% and 1.5%, respectively. During the last 12-months charges for natural gas and for electricity increased 10.9% and 5.0%, respectively. The index for household furnishings and operations, which increased 0.5% in March, declined 0.1% in April.