The descent of the dollar is bringing the first glimmer of hope to U.S. manufacturers who have been battered by imports for the past few years.
Some economists are beginning to see scattered increases in prices of imported goods, which could ease the pressure on domestic industries facing foreign competition.
Government and private economists have noticed dollar-related price increases of important industrial machinery from Japan and Germany, computer parts from Europe and other manufactured products. The Labor Department's index of import prices excluding fuels has increased for the second consecutive quarter after declining for more than a year. That rise in the index coincided with the dollar's decline since it hit its peak last February.
"This recent upward movement in prices for some major categories of imported goods may well be linked to the depreciation of the dollar," Janet L. Norwood, commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said earlier this month. "This is certainly the case for some goods that are priced in foreign currency" which then is converted to U.S. dollars, she said.
As the cost of imports rises, domestic manufacturers who have been forced to accept lower profit margins to compete will find room to lift their own prices. Workers will enjoy more job security as their employers recover, but prices also may begin to rise. Few economists believe this process will cause inflation to accelerate significantly, however.
The dollar's depreciation may have had a small effect on the sharp increase in prices for imported cars in the past six months, said Bill Alterman, chief of the international price indexes branch of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
However, a larger impact has been noticed on imports from Japan, Germany and Britain of industrial machinery, "one of the industries in which the U.S. has been losing out to foreign suppliers," Alterman said.
Prices of imports other than fuels increased 0.3 percent in the second quarter and 0.4 percent in the third quarter, after having declined in 1984 and early 1985, allowing foreign firms to keep competitive pressure on domestic companies. Prices of all imports, including fuels, were unchanged in the third quarter, after months of declines.
Since February, the dollar has declined 18.5 percent, according to Federal Reserve Board figures. Most of the depreciation has been against the pound, the mark, the franc, the lira and the yen, according to a Morgan Guaranty Bank analysis.
Some economists said they see firming of some commodities prices that are subject to foreign competition. Other analysts said raw materials and oil prices still are weak, but prices have risen for imported machinery, transportation equipment and manufactured products.
The trend of higher prices for imports "is in contrast to the generally weakening price situation throughout the last half of 1984 and early 1985, during which prices of both raw materials and manufactured products declined," Norwood said.
The release last week of the 0.9 percent jump in the producer price index (PPI) also suggested to some economists that the dollar's decline is being felt.
"This month's PPI does hint that the deflation in commodities prices is reaching an end," said Allen Sinai, chief economist for Shearson Lehman Brothers. "Some of the upward pressure on prices, especially in the intermediate- and crude-materials indices, may have stemmed from a declining dollar. Some components such as oil, petroleum, fuel and agricultural products like wheat are affected by the declining dollar.
"Eventually, the lower dollar will produce upward pressure on inflation rates," Sinai continued. "The issue is when and how much. But, near term, not much upward pressure is likely."
Many other economists agree. Although prices may rise in some product categories, few economists see a resurgence of inflation caused by the dollar.
Working against a reacceleration of inflation are technological innovation and the emergence of new international competitors in specific industries, Norwood said. Other economists said that continued slack in the economy, such as high unemployment and low plant utilization, and a large worldwide supply of many commodities and fuel will help to restrain inflation.
"We'll get some modest one-time price increases," said Lawrence Chimerine, chief economist for Chase Econometrics. Given deflationary pressures elsewhere, there shouldn't be much difference in the inflation rate, he predicted.
Chimerine said he has noticed a firming in some prices of imports in the last couple of weeks. "Japanese importers have started to announce price increases," Chimerine said. However, those are largely scattered, particularly among products for which there is no domestic competition such as consumer electronics. "They feel they can maintain the market even by raising prices," he said.
The dollar was given an extra push downward two months ago when Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III announced that the Group of Five -- the United States, Britain, Germany, Japan and France -- had agreed to coordinate efforts to lower its value further as a way of helping U.S. exports and reducing protectionist pressures in Congress.
However, most of the 18.5 percent decline in the dollar's value occurred before that announcement.
The dollar has fallen about 7 percent against major currencies since September, according to Federal Reserve figures. It is down about 16 percent against the yen and 10 percent against the mark. (Last week the administration criticized West Germany for not carrying out the September agreement vigorously enough.)
According to Labor Department figures that were calculated before the Group of Five meeting, the trade-weighted value of the U.S. dollar was 4.1 percent lower in September than it was in June, after depreciating 4.7 percent during the second quarter. "The easing in the decline of import prices coincided with the recent depreciation of the U.S. dollar," the Labor Department said.
For the quarter ending in September, prices for imported goods with some processing rose 0.9 percent in the third quarter after four consecutive quarterly declines, according to the Labor Department's index of U.S. import and export prices. The areas where prices increased were nonmetallic mineral manufactures, cork and wood manufacturing, paper and paperboard products, nonferrous metals and metal manufactured goods. However, there were small price declines for imported iron and steel, textiles and rubber products.
The Labor Department noted that a decline of the dollar againt the mark and the Swiss franc contributed to the sharp increase in prices for professional, scientific and controlling instruments and apparatus since March.
Prices for machinery and transport equipment rose for the second consecutive quarter, and there were large price rises in general industrial machinery, specialized machinery and metalworking machinery. Smaller price increases were posted for office machinery parts, largely from Europe, because of exchange-rate changes, Alterman said.
In many cases where prices have increased, however, the products still are selling for less than they were a year or so ago.