More bad inflation news sent interest rates soaring to new records yesterday as the White House, beset by fresh pressures on the political front, continued talks with congress on how to balance next year's budget.
With a warning that the inflation outlook is worsening, the Labor Department reported prices charged by producers leaped 1.5 percent in February, or at a compound annual rate of 19.6 percent, continuing the explosion that began in January.
The department also announced that the jobless rate edged down during the month, to 6 percent in February from 6.2 percent in January, indicating the long-predicted recession still has not taken hold.
The combination of figures sent interest rates climbing again. Most of the nation's major banks raised the prime rate they charge their most creditworthy corporate customers to 17 3/4, and one institution, the Harris Trust & Savings Bank of Chicago, went to 18 percent from 17 1/4 percent. The other major banks were not expected to follow Harris' lead, however, because Harris is not a pattern-setter for the industry.
On Capitol Hill, top administration economic officials continued negotiations with congressional leaders in an effort to agree on a set of specific spending-cut proposals to recommend to President Carter later today. s
White House officials said Carter plans to spend the weekend reviewing the budget situation and will announce his proposals later next week. The president told visiting mayors yesterday the cuts would be "very unsettling."
Meanwhile, in Chicago, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D. Mass.)., Carter's chief Democratic presidential rival, sharply attacked the administration's budget-cutting preparations, contending cuts would only hurt the poor without slowing inflation.
Kennedy lambasted what he called "four myths" of economics -- that budget-balancing would slow inflation, that wage-price controls will not work, that oil-price rises are the main cause of inflation and that recession is good medicine.
He again called for a six-month wage-price freeze, to be followed by across-the-board controls in prices, wages, profits, dividends, interest rates and rent; reimposition of oil-price controls, and gasoline rationing.
Separately, a contingent of top U.S. labor leaders visited Carter at the White House to try to dissuade him from cutting domestic spending further but apparently won no commitments on that score.
The group included AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland; Jerry Wurf, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employes; Sol Chaikin, head of the garment workers' union, and Martin Ward of the plumbers' union.
In another development the White House charged that the recently negotiated three-year wage contract between the United Auto Workers union and the Ford Motor Co. violates the administration's voluntary wage guidelines. (Details, Page D9.)
On Thursday, Robert R. Russell, director of the Council on Wage and Price Stability, predicted inflation this year would be close to last year's 13.3 percent rate. The White House is revising its January economic forecast.
The 1.5 percent rise in producer prices announced yesterday heightened fears on Wall Street that inflation is getting out of control. Although the major jump was in oil prices, the increase was spread throughout the economy.
The Carter administration made no bones about the gravity of the new figures. White House economic adviser Charles L. Schultze told reporters at a briefing that the nation faces "a very dangerous widening of inflation."
Schultze said Carter is "close" to making decisions on new anti-inflation measures and suggested that the administration is willing to tolerate a rise in unemployment above the 7.5 percent level it has forecast for this year as the price of stemming inflation.
Continued inflationary pressure, he said, "had made us reevaluate all of those projections. We are prepared to take tough action."
Schultze once again suggested that at least part of the new increase may stem from "anticipatory price rises by businesses that are trying to raise price levels early in time to beat out any move toward wage-price controls.
However, John Layng, the Labor Department economist who compiles the index each month, told Congress yesterday he sees no evidence in the figures that such behavior is occurring.
Carter has no authority to impose wage-price controls, and told senators earlier this week he would veto any attempt by Congress to pass such legislation. However, many businessmen appear unconvinced.
The producer price increase reported yesterday was particularly discouraging to economists because it occurred despite a second monthly decline in food prices indicating the inflation was concentrated in so-called "underlying" areas.
As in the previous month's index, the major factor in the increase was a sharp jump in energy prices, the result of December's rise in crude oil prices. Energy prices soared 7.5 percent in February, their sharpest since March 1974.
World oil price increases are now more reflected in this country than before, because the president has ordered the phasing out of U.S. oil price controls.
The index also again was bloated by a steep jump in jewelry prices, stemming from the recent surge in gold and silver prices. Prices producers charged for nonfood items overall rose by 2 percent.
However, the figures also showed sharp increases in the prices of a broad range of other goods and commodities from apparel, tobacco and paper products to appliances, furniture and heavy machinery and equipment.
The department's index of finished consumer goods -- the component of the producer index that most closely parellels the consumer price index -- leaped 1.8 percent in February, following a 1.6 percent jump in January.
Layng said in testimony before the Congress' Joint Economic Committee that taken together, the price figures for January and February combined "indicate that price pressure may be accelerating."
The statistics on the job picture were mixed. The fact that the unemployment rate declined was taken as evidence that the slight increase to 6.2 percent recorded in January was just an aberration and that recession has not arrived.
However, the figure also showed continuing signs that the economy is slowing somewhat: The number of new jobs in the economy edged up only a scant 149,000, while the length of the average workweek and other key indicators declined.
Some economists have been hoping for signs of slowdown on the theory that inflation will not begin to abate until the economy falls into a recession. Forecasters have been predicting a sump for more than a year.
Yesterday's producer price figures brought the pace of inflation at the wholesale level to an annual rate of 19.6 percent from 21 percent the previous month. Over the past 12 months, the index has risen 13.3 percent.
The index for February was 235.4 percent of its 1967 average. That meant retailers had to pay producers $235.40 to obtain the same goods at wholesale that cost $100 13 years ago.