Inflation fears are beginning to sweep the financial markets. After an extraordinary recent record, marked by a consumer price index gain of only 1.2 percent from the end of 1985 to the end of 1986, the rate had risen to an annual rate of 5.6 percent by May. Most forecasters look for a 5-plus percent inflation rate this year, and perhaps 6 to 6.5 percent in 1988.
At the moment, the push comes mostly from oil and other import prices. As a result of great uncertainty over military operations in the Persian Gulf, and OPEC's new self-restraint in oil production, there has been a reversal of the early 1986 collapse of oil prices. Those who looked for oil to hover between $15 and $18 per barrel have been proved wrong. Instead, prices appear to be in the $21 to $22 range.
As consumers, we see this reflected in gasoline prices at the pump. In the five months ended in May, consumer energy prices jumped at an annual rate of 16.2 percent, reversing the 1986 decline of 19.7 percent from 1985.
Add to this the higher prices for imported goods that result from the decline in the dollar, and the impact is clear. Says Richard Berner of Salomon Brothers, "The era of disinflation that has prevailed in the United States over the past several years is ending."
According to his analysis, the impetus for higher prices in 1988 will be homegrown, rather than from abroad. By next year, the driving inflationary force could come from the wage side, as unions try to recoup lost purchasing power. In addition, productivity improvement is dismal, adding to costs, and there may as well be bottlenecks emerging in some products.
Congress may then add its own torch to inflationary fires with a new round of excise taxes, because it doesn't have the guts to pass a straightaway income-tax increase.
If this scenario -- increased price pressures resulting from higher raw materials, product and labor costs -- does take place, it will be a jolt to what has been a benign period on the inflationary front.
It began with a seriously overvalued dollar that enabled the nation to go on an import-buying binge at cheap prices, aided by the 1985-1986 collapse of the OPEC cartel. It was fun while it lasted, but we may be about to pay the price for living high off the hog.
And until now, we have pretty well escaped most of the inflationary results of the sharp turnaround of the dollar against Japanese and European currencies. There are important reasons for this: First, foreigners have had fat bankrolls, allowing them to shrink profit margins so as to keep their share of the U.S. market.
Second, South Korea, Taiwan and the other newly industrialized countries (NICs) in Asia, whose currencies haven't gone up as much as Japan's, have been able, in effect, to enforce a lid on prices. Thus, for TV sets -- where NICs outsell Japan -- prices continue to drop. But for videocassette recorders, where Japan has a 97 percent monopoly in this country, imports jumped 14 percent in the first quarter of this year. In addition, as Salomon Brothers' Berner points out, the lackluster American economy has dampened demand.
But these inflation-restraining factors are changing: As company profits drop in Japan, more of the 60 percent appreciation of the yen will be passed through in higher prices. The same will be true of European firms. The Taiwan dollar and Korean won are being allowed to creep up in exchange markets, which means that goods from those countries will also be more expensive.
Worst of all, this trend toward higher import prices creates an "umbrella" for American manufacturers. They will be tempted to raise their own prices, especially if an expected revival of overall consumer demand occurs.
There is nothing, yet, to suggest a return of the double-digit inflation that will forever be remembered as a bad mark against the Carter administration. But it will be a marked difference from the last couple of years, especially if interest rates join in the upward swing.
A House Banking subcommittee reports says:
"A major resurgence of inflation would be a tragedy. Taming it for yet a third time within 15 years would probably entail the most wrenching recession in our postwar history. The relief it might bring debtors would surely be temporary, and not worth the costs to be paid when opinion eventually swings behind firm anti-inflationary policies."
In one of his final appearances on Capitol Hill as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Paul A. Volcker made this point: While a shift from the low rate of inflation in 1986 had been widely expected in 1987, "the size and pervasiveness of the price increases ... affected the psychology and expectations in financial markets, particularly in April and early May."
For Volcker's successor, Alan Greenspan, the potential for a 1987-1988 inflationary binge -- the same one Volcker would have faced -- will provide an early baptism. He will be called on to nip the new spiral in the bud, but to avoid a recession. No Fed chairman yet has ever found the magic formula to accomplish both goals