WASHINGTON (AP) -- Falling U.S. gas prices likely offset more expensive food in March, leaving a measure of consumer prices unchanged for the third time in four months.
Economists forecast that consumer prices, excluding the volatile food and energy categories, rose 0.2 percent, according to a survey by FactSet.
The Labor Department is scheduled to release the report at 8:30 a.m. EDT Tuesday.
The figures will likely show that inflation is largely in check. That gives the Federal Reserve the leeway to continue its extraordinary efforts to stimulate the economy.
In February, consumer prices jumped 0.7 percent, the most in more than three years, mostly because of a big increase in energy costs. Gas prices rose by the largest amount in more than 3 ½ years.
Since then, gas has gotten cheaper. Wholesale gas prices plunged 6.8 percent in March, pushing down a measure of wholesale prices 0.6 percent, the biggest decline in 10 months.
Gas prices averaged $3.53 nationwide on Monday, according to AAA. That's 16 cents lower than a month ago.
Over the 12 months ending in February, consumer prices rose 2 percent. That was down from a 2.9 percent increase for the 12 months ending in February 2012.
Excluding the volatile food and energy categories, core prices rose 0.2 percent in February and were up 2 percent over the past year.
That matches the Federal Reserve's inflation target of 2 percent. But the Fed's preferred inflation measure, which is part of the Commerce Department's consumer spending report, is even lower.
Mild inflation gives the Fed the room to keep pursing policies to spur faster economic growth. The Fed is keeping a key short-term interest rate it controls at nearly zero at least until unemployment falls below 6.5 percent. It is also buying about $85 billion in Treasury securities and mortgage-backed bonds in an effort to keep longer-term interest rates low and spur more borrowing and spending.
However, some economists have raised concerns that the policies being pushed by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke could ultimately trigger higher inflation. They also worry that the Fed's programs could create bubbles in assets such as the price of stocks.