Another surge in the cost of food, gasoline and homeownership pushed consumer prices up at a 15.4 percent annual rate in February, the biggest one-month jump in 4 1/2 years, the Labor Department reported yesterday.
The Consumer Price Index now has risen 9.9 percent in the last 12 months, with food prices up an even steeper 12.7 percent. Carter administration officials refuse to predict how much inflation might moderate except to say that food prices will be rising more slowly in the next three months.
"There is obviously nothing good that can be said about gigures at this level," said White House press secretary Jody Powell. The economic conditions that led to such increases built up over several years "and it will take a while to do something about them," he added.
Presidential inflation adviser Alfred Kahn called the 1.2 percent rise in February "a bad performance" and appealed to consumers and labor unions to give the administration's voluntary wage-price program another "three or four months to show what it can do."
The administration is already struggling to keep that program from falling apart, and the latest price report only makes things worse. Yesterday's report may affect the already difficult trucking industry negotiations with the Teamsters union.
The Teamsters' national freight contract expires at the end of next week, and yesterday J. Curtis Counts, the chief industry negotiator, warned that the February consumer price report "complicates acceptance of the wageprice standards by the union."
Kahn blamed the acceleration of inflation in recent months -- the price index rose 0.9 percent in January, after 0.6 percent increases in both December and Novermber -- on three things:
"Food, mainly meat. Oil and gasoline, mainly OPEC. And the amazing strength of the Economy."
Those three points underscore why no one wants to promise quick relief for consumers. First, administration officials believe there is little they can do to affect the price of food. Second, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries meets Monday in Geneva, and most observers expect it to raise the price of crude oil by at least another $1.20 a barrel, to about $15.20, and then to set other increases for later this year.
On the third point, Kahn said the February price increase is further evidence that "we have had an overheated economy." Kahn said the administration is discussing whether to take further steps to cool off the economy but that no decision has been reached.
About three-fourths of the February increase in consumer prices resulted from a 1.6 percent rise in food and beverage prices and a 1.3 percent jump in homeownership costs. Beef and poultry prices rose sharply for the fifth consecutive month, contributing to a 4.9 percent increase in the price of meat in supermarkets. Prices for pork, fresh fruits, bakery products and dairy products all rose substantially, too.
Housing costs shot up again as well. Some officials had been hoping that a much smaller increase in home purchase prices in January was a sign of good things to come.But in February, those prices leaped ahead 1.3 percent, a higher rate than during most of last year.
Mortgage interest costs rose 3.1 percent last month almost entirely because New YORK AND California lifted rate ceilings in state usury laws. In New York, rates had been capped at 8 percent and virtually no mortgage loans were being made.
The rapid rise in mortgage interest rates during the past year has had a major impact on the consumer price index. If there had been no increase in those rates, the overall CPI would have risen only 8.9 percent instead of the actual 9.9 percent.
Reflecting the recent rapid increase in world oil prices, retail gasoline prices soared 2 percent in February. In the last three months, gasoline prices have risen at a 25 percent annual rate.
New car prices rose sharply last month also.They went up 1.2 percent, but are up only 7.3 percent in the last 1i months.
Home heating oil prices were still skyrocketing in February. They rose 3.1 percent, and are up 9.8 percent in the last year.
Howard Hjort, the Agriculture Department's chief economist, predicted that there will be "another significant increase in retail food prices in March, perhaps as high as 1 percent to 1 1/2 percent."
However, he added this hopeful note: "All the signs now point to a much smaller increase" in the second three months of this year than in the first. The second quarter "should indeed look small compared to the first."
Hjort said that 57 percent of February's 1.6 percentage point increase in food prices came because of higher values received by farmers for their products. Another 35 percent resulted from higher marketing costs, and 8 percent from higher costs for fish and imported foods.
Hamburger supplies will remain tight, Hjort cautioned, as will beef supplies generally. But larger pork supplies should help hold down those prices in the coming three months.
Milk prices will not rise any further until next fall, the economist said. However, because of winter damage to trees, fresh fruit prices will probably keep going up until late this year.