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A PRICE RISE FANS INFLATION CONCERN An unexpected surge in wholesale prices last month, the latest of a string of higher price reports, left many economists and investors wondering whether the inflation genie was starting to slip out of the bottle. Producer prices leaped six-tenths of a percent in April, the Labor Department reported yesterday. That jump -- the biggest in two and a half years and significantly larger than most forecasters expected -- unsettled everyone from bond investors to homeowners who had not gotten around to refinancing their mortgages and worried that an uptick in inflation could push interest rates higher. 4.7% Annual Rate Although bad weather was partly to blame and the monthly rate probably exaggerates the average increases over a longer stretch of time, the spurt suggested that the sanguine inflation forecasts of the Federal Reserve and the Clinton Administration, of 2.5 to 3 percent for the year, could ultimately prove a shade too rosy. The Producer Price Index has now risen at an annual rate of 4.7 percent so far this year, well above the 1.6 percent increase for 1992. The index measures price changes of all goods produced in the United States -- everything from computers to celery -- and is based on a monthly survey mailed to 87,000 factories and farms. Since it covers only about 30 percent of economic activity, a rise in the index does not translate into an equal increase in inflation generally. To some economists, the most eye-catching number in the report was the underlying or "core" inflation rate -- the index stripped of volatile food and energy prices. This core number has risen at a 3.4 percent annual rate so far this year, noticeably faster than last year's 2 percent, though merely a fraction of the 12.8 percent increase in 1979, during the high inflation years. Administration economists called the numbers disappointing, but, like many analysts, said they were waiting to see today's Consumer Price Index, a broader measure that includes services as well as goods. Most economic forecasters have predicted a moderate rise of two-tenths or three-tenths of a percent -- in line with what they had expected for producer prices. Although consumer prices generally move roughly in parallel with producer prices, they do not necessarily match each other month by month. High Vegetable Prices Several special one-time events, including bad weather that pushed up vegetable prices, made things look worse than they probably were. But the fact that analysts were unpleasantly surprised for several months in a row made many reluctant to dismiss the report as yet another fluke. "You can keep saying this is an exception and that's an exception but pretty soon things add up to a trend," said Tom Tibbetts, who is in charge of the producer price survey at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. "The accumulation of special factors makes it look like inflation is a little warmer this year than last year." Even if the poorer performance continues, however, a modest increase in the inflation rate is not expected to alter the political battle that is shaping up over Alan Greenspan's steady-as-she-goes monetary policy. Senator Jim Sasser, Democrat of Tennessee, said that he and fellow Democrats planned to keep pressing the Federal Reserve to push interest rates lower -- even if inflation does worsen a bit. "We have already pushed the Fed, and continue to keep up the pressure," he said. "The first thing the Fed should not do is panic and use these numbers to tighten. "At best, they ought to consider loosening to spur more economic growth. They ought to put up a sign over the Fed saying 'It's not inflation, stupid.' " But Representative Dick Armey, Republican of Texas, said the Fed should not back off. "They need to be vigilant," he said. "My Democratic colleagues want to use fiscal policy to aggravate the economic situation. Then they want to say to the Fed essentially, 'You guys have to pull our car out of ditch.' There's no way that monetary policy can undo the harmful effects of bad fiscal policy." Investors initially reacted to the report yesterday morning by selling bonds and stocks and driving up gold prices, partly because the report dashed hopes of easing by the Fed to bolster the weak economy. "Inflation is starting to come back a little," said Brian Keyser, an economist at CRT Government Securities. "If the Fed doesn't step on it later this year, we could have a real problem in 1994." Bad weather can be blamed for more than a third of the leap in the producer price index last month. Thanks to wet weather in the West and cold in Florida, fruit and vegetable prices zoomed at one of the fastest rates on record, by 44.7 percent, as heavy rains washed away crops in the fields. Those price are likely to fall again within a couple of months. No 'Catastrophe' Seen "This isn't a catastrophe," said Donald Ratajczak, director of the Center for Economic Forecasting at Georgia State University, and one of the few forecasters who saw the spurt in producer prices coming. "We get six different crops a year and within two months we'll get the East Coast crop." Another jolt came from tobacco prices, which rose about 8 percent in the last year. But smokers of Marlboros or Camels or other popular brands are expecting price cuts. Philip Morris, for example, announced on April 2 that it was cutting the price of Marlboros by 40 cents a pack, but the average price of wholesale cigarettes did not start to fall until May and is apt to keep declining in June. R. J. Reynolds is also making cuts. A factor likely to weigh against inflation is lingering unemployment, which holds down wage gains. Unit labor costs have been rising very slowly, thanks to rapid productivity gains. And factories still have lots of spare capacity. But there were also signs in yesterday's report that businesses, which have not been very successful at raising prices in the weak economy of the last few years, are trying again to increase profit margins, especially since virtually all of the improvements in profitability so far have come from cost cutting.