Wholesale prices rose 1.3 percent in January, the biggest monthly increase since November 1974, the Labor Department reported yesterday. Presidential inflation fighter Alfred Kahn called the increase a "catastrophe."
Kahn and other administration officials had been braced for bad news, but not quite so awful as it turned out to be. They knew food prices were soaring, but they did not expect that virtually every part of the wholesale price index would be hit by similarly big jumps.
"I can't pretend to be optimistic," Kahn gloomily told the Senate Banking Committee. The increases, he said, were "terribly widespread and troublesome."
The January rise equals an annual rate of 16.8 percent and was far higher than monthly increases during 1978. The average change from last September to December was 0.8 percent compared to January's 1.3 percent.
White House press secretary Jody Powell said the administration hoped "this disturbing news for January will cause those who have been most critical of the president's determination to hold the line on the budget... to reconsider."
"It's clear if we're going to deal with the problem we will have to put the general welfare ahead of any allegiance to any pet project," Powell said. The White House warning came as Congress is beginning consideration of the fiscal 1980 budget.
Powell added that the bad inflation news has not changed Carter's opposition to mandatory wage and price controls.
Kahn suggested, and a number of private economists agreed, that "many companies are getting in their allowable increases with the [price] guidelines in the first six months." The complex price guidelines in Carter's voluntary wage-price program allow companies to raise their prices each six months by one-half of whatever amount is allowed for a full year.
In other words, companies are moving quickly to have their allowed increases in place for as large a part of the year as possible.
Prices of consumer foods shot up 1.8 percent, in part because of weather-related shortages of cattle at midwestern sales lots, and because of lettuce and other vegetables in California.
Other finished goods, a category that includes everything from new cars to shoes, rose 1.1 percent, an increase that some economists found more troubling than that for foods. "It takes an awful lot to raise that index from a change of 0.8 percent (December's increase) to 1.1 percent," said Kathryn Eickhoff of Townsend-Greenspan & Co., a New York economic consulting firm.
New car prices jumped 2.1 percent last month, and were up 8.2 percent in the past year. Gasoline rose 3.2 percent in January, luggage 2.6 percent, cosmetics 3.2 percent, and tobacco products 4.7 percent. Home heating oil prices rose 1.4 percent.
The breadth of the products carrying much higher prices worries administration officials because it will make it that much harder to persuade union members to agree to accept new contract settlements within Carter's 7 percent guideline.
Separate indexes for intermediate goods -- those that are partly processed but not ready for sale to final customers -- went up 1.2 percent, while crude goods climbed 2.4 percent.
Prices of finished steel products, which receive protection from foreign competition through a system of required minimum prices for imports, rose 3.6 percent. With the umbrella of the so-called trigger prices for imports, this category of steel has risen 14.4 percent since January 1978.
Therein lies the continuing dilemma for an administration trying to get a handle on inflation. To protect the steel industry and its workers, trigger prices were set up. Farm prices are up sharply in part because of government actions. And part of the increases that occurred last month probably are tied to a sizable increase in some companies' labot costs because of Jan. 1 jumps in Social Security taxes and the minimum wage.
On Thursday, after a meeting with Carter, Kahn pointed to another dilemma. This "is simply not the time to deregulate oil prices," he said, despite promises by Carter at last summer's economic summit in Bonn that U.S. oil prices would be allowed to rise to world levels by 1980. Such move "at this time would be "seriously inflationary," Kahn declared at the White House.
Kahn remains confident, he says, that inflation will begin to slow before long.
Barry Bosworth, director of the Council on Wage and Price Stability, told the Banking Committee that the voluntary wage-price standards, with widespread cooperation, "will have a very significant effect on the rate of inflation this year."
Meanwhile, Federal Reserve Board Chairman G. William Miller said in Los Angeles that he is "less optimistic" than the administration and that he would consider a drop to an 8 percent inflation rate by year-end "a good performance." The administration has forecast 7.4 percent.
Miller told a press conference that it would be premature to assume any downward shift in interest rates. Financial market observers this week have concluded that the Fed in fact is not lossening its policy despite the very sluggish growth of the money supply and a drop in some market interest rates. The quarter-point drop in banks' prime lending rate begun last week continued to spread slowly with Citibank, the nation's second-largest bank, lowering its prime rate from 11 3/4 to 11 1/2 percent.