Continuing sharp increases in food an industrial prices pushed wholesale prices up another 1 percent last month, providing further evidence that many small and medium-sized firms may be breaching the Carter administration's price guidelines.
The unusally sharp rise, following increases of 1 percent in February and 1.3 percent in january, brought the pace of inflation for the first three months of this year to an annual rate of 14.1 percent-the steepest quarterly jump in five years.
The increases, while expected, dealth another severe blow to the administration, which has been trying to persuade unions to hold their wage increases to 7 percent or less despite the recent surge in prices. There already are strikes in the trucking and airline industries.
The White House, taken aback by the breadth of the past few months' inflation speedup, acted in March to tighten its price guidelines and toughen its monitoring of small and medium-sized corporations, but officials say the impact, if any, will not be apparent for months.
The administration also had been expected to announce a new effort to enlist consumers in a campaign to report excessive price increases. However, yesterday's figures were so bleak that officials decided to postpone the move to a "more favorable" time.
Last night, President Carter announced a gradual decontrol of domestic oil prices-a move certain to add further to inflation. The over-all inflation rate in 1978 was 9 percent, as measured by the consumer price index. Many economists expect it to be near that this year as well.
White House reaction to the price report was muted. Jody Powell, te president's press secretary, conceded that the March figures "certainly were not welcome news," and acknowledged the administration still had a long way to go in its effort to slow inflation.
However, Powell said consumers could take some comfort from the fact that pork, poultry and vegetable prices "actually went down" in March after soaring in the two previous months-a development some analysts say could lead to more moderate wholesale price rises in April.
As in January and February, the most stunning price increases last month came in prices of food items ready to be sold at retail, which jumped 1.2 percent-only slightly below February's enormous 1.6 percent rise. Both beef and veal prices continued to soar in March.
But the speedup extended to a wide range of other goods as well. Prices of finished goods outside the food category jumped 0.9 percent in March, the same as in February. And the overall finished goods index leaped 1.1 percent, following a 1.2 percent rise the month before.
Yesterday's price figures reflected a continuation of the industrial boom that is overheating the economy-a situation in which the inflation problem is being exacerbated by excess demand. Officials are hoping for some slowing soon, but so far purchases are continuing high.
Analysts at the president's Council on Wage and Price Stability, the inflation-watchdog agency, say the buying may stem in part from efforts by firms to beat out expected price increases later. Officials say some small and medium-sized firms are flouting the guidelines.
The March increases were expected to be translated quickly into further price boosts at the retail level. While manufacturers, distributors and retailers ofter absorb a part of each wholesale price increase, some of the jump ultimately is passed on to consumers.
The hopeful signs that Powell pointed out yesterday included a visible slowdown in prices of raw agricultural products and food at the intermediate stage of processing. At the same time, crude materials prices slowed markedly. All are harbingers of coming price trends.
Yesterday's report showed prices of farm products rose only 0.2 percent in March, compared with 3.8 percent in February, while prices of processed foods rose 0.3 percent, down from a 1.8 percent jump in February. Crude prices were up 1 percent after soaring 3.3 percent before.
Nevertheless, the March report was considered certain to heighten pressures on unions to push for still-higher wage boosts in the months ahead. So far, wage increases generally have remained moderate despite the sharp jump in prices. However, some officials fear this soon may end.
The March increase left the overall wholesale price index 10.4 percent above its level of a year ago-the steepest such rise since July 1975. The March index stood at 208.8 percent of its 1967 average-meaning it took $208.80 to buy the same goods that cost $100 in 1967. CAPTION: Graph, Wholesale Price Index For Finished Goods, The Washington Post