WASHINGTON (NEWSnet/AP) — Inflation in the United States eased in May for a second straight month, a sign that a pickup in prices that happened early this year may have passed.

The trend, if it holds, could move the Federal Reserve closer to cutting its benchmark interest rate from its 23-year peak.

Consumer prices excluding volatile food and energy costs — the closely watched “core” index — rose 0.2% from April to May, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said Wednesday. That was down from 0.3% the previous month and was the smallest increase since October. Measured from a year earlier, core prices rose 3.4%, below last month’s 3.6% increase.

Fed officials are scrutinizing each month’s inflation data to assess their progress in their fight against rising prices.

Even as overall inflation moderates, such necessities as groceries, rent and health care are much pricier than they were three years ago — a continuing source of public discontent.

Most other measures suggest that the economy is healthy: Unemployment remains low, hiring is robust and consumers are traveling, eating out and spending on entertainment.

Overall inflation also slowed last month, with consumer prices unchanged from April to May, in part because of sharp falls in the cost of gasoline, air fares and new cars. Measured from a year earlier, consumer prices rose 3.3%, less than the 3.6% increase a month earlier.

The cost of auto insurance, which has soared in recent months, actually dipped from April to May, though it’s still up more than 20% from a year earlier. Grocery prices were unchanged last month, after declining slightly in April. They’re now up just 1% on a year-over-year basis.

The Fed has kept its key rate unchanged for nearly a year after having rapidly raised it in 2022 and 2023 to fight the worst bout of inflation in four decades.

Those higher rates have led, in turn, to more expensive mortgages, auto loans, credit cards and other forms of consumer and business borrowing. Though inflation is now far below its peak of 9.1% in mid-2022, it remains above the Fed’s target level.

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