Continued overheating in the economy and a big jump in energy prices pushed wholesale prices up 0.9 percent in April, dealing another sharp setback to the Carter administration's anti-inflation program.
The April rise compared to 1 percent increases in the two previous months, with the "improvement" coming entirely from a decline in food prices. Non-food prices, a better indicator of inflation trends, speeded up further.
The April figures showed strains in the administration's six-month-old wage-price guidelines program. Farm prices are exempt from formal restraints, but the guideline were supposed to help slow non-food prices.
Jody Powell, President Carter's press secretary, said the April decline in consumer food prieces-the first recorded in a full year-showed that "the worst of the bad news on food prices is behind us."
However, Powell conceded that the April price rise was "not encouraging." He admitted that "it is apparent that the U.S. will have several months of bad news on the inflation front."
And several economists, both in and out of the government, expressed serious doubts that the wage-price guidelines would be able to withstand the strain if the price surge continues much longer.
George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO, issued a statement warning that workers and consumers would not be able to stay within the administration's 7 percent wage guideline ifprices continued to rise at this pace.
Meany also took the opportunity to urge Congress to block Carter's oil decontrol plan or risk still-sharper inflation in coming months.
And John Layng, assistant commissioner for price trends at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said yesterday's figures offered little hope that the inflation rate would begin to taper off soon.
The April report brought inflation at the wholesale level so far this year to an annual rate of 13.1 percent, the fastest pace since 1974. Over the past 12 months, the wholesale index has risen 10.3 percent.
Increase in wholesale prices are not always passed along, on a dollar-for-dollar basis, to retail consumers. However, continued high inflation at the wholesale level-such as has been occurring-ultimately boosts retail prices.
The sharp speedup in non-food prices in April came essentially from two factors:
Continued high demand for industrial products and some consumer goods has enabled manufacturers to raise prices sharply-apparently still remaining within the administration's original price guidelines.
Sharply rising energy prices have begun to make their impact felt on the economy, both directly, in the form of higher gasoline and heating fuel prices, and indirectly, in higher prices for chemical and drugs.
The bright note involving wholesale food prices followed earlier declines in raw agricultural prices. Prices of food ready for shipment to supermarkets fell 0.3 percent in April after soaring 1.2 percent in March.
Wholesale price of pork and roasted coffee plummeted even more sharply in April than in previous months, while vegetable prices dropped for the second month in a raw. Beef prices rose, but less sharply than before.
In a separate announcement, the nation's three larges coffee roasters said they would raise wholesale prices by 15 cents a pound today. It is the first round of increases in two years.
Prices of finished goods other than food leaped 1.3 percent in April following 0.9 percent increases in each of the two previous months, with sharp jumps in a wide variety of key items, from apparel to consumer plastics.
Although much of that increase stemmed from energy price boosts, non-food prices accelerated even with the energy component eliminated. Gasoline prices soared 4.4 percent over the month. Heating oil jumped 6.7 percent.
Moreover, prices of goods at the intermediate stage of manufacturing-a bellwether of coming price trends-also accelerated, pointing to a bleak outlook for the future. These prices soared 1.5 percent, compared with 1 percent in March.
One modestly encouraging development last month was a decline in wholesale crude materials prices, which feel 0.4 percent after rising 1 percent in March. However, analysts cautioned that the figure is a volatile one.
The April increases brought the overall wholesale price index to 211.2 percent of its 1967 average. That means it took $211.20 to buy the same goods at wholesale last month that cost $100 a dozen years ago. CAPTION: Graph, no caption, The Washington Post