WITH THE new figures on inflation, the Federal Reserve Board's familiar dilemma is sharpened. There are now widespread fears throughout the country of a recession not far ahead. But anything that the Federal Reserve might do to stave it off would make inflation worse -- and, of course, vice versa. For the present, the wisest course is to do very little in either direction.
From the beginning of the year through July prices rose at an annual rate of nearly 6 percent, well above the level of the previous several years. And the July figures were collected at a time when energy prices were falling, before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. There will be another blip upward in the August report, reflecting the impact of suddenly more expensive oil.
It would be a mistake to dismiss this acceleration of inflation as merely a couple of unlucky but isolated incidents -- a cold snap last winter, now a quarrel in the Middle East. Evidence has been accumulating for some time that inflation is speeding up. Employees' compensation, which means wages plus benefits, has been picking up momentum for a couple of years and is now rising more than 5 percent a year.
Oil isn't the only external force for higher inflation. The dollar's exchange rate has been falling against most of the European currencies (although not, so far, against the Japanese yen), and sank to a record low last week against the German mark. Driven by the enormous demands for investment in Eastern Europe, real interest rates are now much higher in the European banking centers than in New York, and some of the moneybags are selling their dollars to capture higher returns in Frankfurt. A lower dollar means higher prices for imports.
As for the recession, it's a danger but at the moment a hypothetical one. Whether it will arrive in the next several months is totally uncertain. The economy is now growing very slowly, but few of the usual harbingers of decline -- like excessive inventories -- have appeared.
Whatever President Bush or Congress may think about all this, they are for the present essentially spectators. In the short term, the American economy's steering system works chiefly through the intricate process of feeding money into the credit markets or draining it out. That's the Federal Reserve's job, and that's where the crucial decisions now lie. The present slow growth is certainly better than a recession. It's also better than faster growth, if the price of faster growth is high inflation.