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This Expansion Hasn't Stalled It's Just On Cruise Control


Business Outlook

THIS EXPANSION HASN'T STALLED--IT'S JUST ON CRUISE CONTROL

The economy's downshift, now evident in most of the data, was likely even without the Federal Reserve's four taps on the brakes starting back in February. Now, those four hikes in interest rates only assure that the slowing trend will continue. Of course, that's the Fed's goal: to give the economy a smooth trip by avoiding a spike in inflation that could blow a tire and wreck the expansion.

Right now, though, the radials are in little danger. Consumer price inflation remains benign, with the core rate--which excludes food and energy prices--running at the lowest level in more than two decades. And the May readings on retail sales, industrial production, and capacity use point to slower growth in coming months, which will keep price pressures at bay.

The consumer price index increased just 0.2% in May, and producer prices for finished goods fell by 0.1% last month. The core CPI rose a bit faster, edging up 0.3%, while core producer prices increased 0.4%. Tobacco and car prices lifted core inflation in May at both the retail and wholesale levels.

Still, over the past year, core inflation remains on a downtrend (chart). Core consumer prices rose just 2.8% in the past 12 months--the slowest inflation rate in 21 years. And producer prices are little changed since last May.

Even further back in the production process, prices of all intermediate materials and supplies are up only 0.9% from a year ago. And the cost of crude materials is down 3%, as price declines in livestock, oil, and timber have offset steep increases in cotton and scrap metals.

For consumers, the main components of the CPI show few signs that price pressures are beginning to build. In particular, medical inflation has come down sharply since its 9.6% pace of early 1990. In May, health-care costs were up 4.6% from a year ago, the mildest advance in 20 years. The improvement is likely the result of two factors: Companies and insurers have successfully controlled their costs, and medical-care suppliers have held the line on price markups in the hope of lessening the pressure for health-care reform.

The service sector remains the place to look for inflationary stress. But even here, the pressures are few. The one area worth watching is a rise in the price of shelter, the result of healthier housing demand. The cost of shelter over the past six months has risen at an annual rate of 3.3%, up from 2.6% in the previous six months.

Since shelter is about 28% of the entire CPI, the pickup suggests that the growth in the CPI may be near the bottom for this cycle. However, the Commerce Dept. data show that consumers devote only about 14% of their spending to housing, suggesting that housing's inflationary impact on the economy as a whole is not that great.

That's not to say the road ahead is clear of price potholes. Because of the Labor Dept.'s new seasonal factors, which softened inflation's sting in the winter, there is a risk of a big monthly jump in the CPI this summer. That one-time gain would likely reverse itself later on, though.

More worrisome is the outlook for oil prices and the dollar. Members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries began their quarterly meeting on June 15 to set future production quotas, even as energy prices are on the rebound. The spot price for Brent crude oil has risen 18.1%, to $16.25 a barrel, since the end of March, when OPEC last met.

So, too, the weaker dollar exerts upward pressure on the prices of foreign-made goods. That's not an insignificant consideration for an economy that imports about one-quarter of all the nonpetroleum goods it buys. Indeed, prices of nonoil imports, which rose 0.4% in April, are up 2% during the past year, about twice as fast as in April, 1993.

Of course, the May price performance says little about the future of inflation. The latest news from retailers and manufacturers, however, does signal that growth is slowing. That means the economy remains short of the point where strong demand and product shortages lead to a speedup in price hikes.

Industrial output increased by just 0.2% in May, and April's data were revised lower to show a gain of just 0.1% instead of 0.3%. Manufacturing production rose 0.2% in both April and May (chart), way below its advances in the preceding two months. So far this quarter, total industrial production is growing at a 3.2% annual rate, less than half of its 8% clip in the first quarter.

Auto output fell 3.9% in May, the third consecutive decline as demand for cars and light trucks begins to taper off. Makers of business equipment remain busy, however. Output there rose a robust 0.9% in May, the 23rd consecutive monthly increase.

That uptrend reflects the spending spree on capital equipment. Businesses plan to increase their outlays for new plants and equipment by 8.3% this year, according to the Commerce Dept.'s spring survey of capital budgets. That advance would follow a 7.1% gain in 1993.

Companies are investing to improve productivity and lower unit-labor costs. Many are succeeding. The Labor Dept. says output per hour worked in the nonfarm business sector rose at an annual rate of 1.3% in the first quarter, higher than the 0.5% increase originally reported. As a result, unit-labor costs grew by 3.9%, instead of a 5% clip.

Clearly, better productivity is another reason to be optimistic about the inflation outlook. It also means that factories can operate at higher capacity-utilization rates without the danger of production bottlenecks. Industry used just 83.5% of its available capacity in May, down slightly from 83.6% in April.

Any increase in operating rates, as well as future gains in manufacturing output, will be tempered by the conservative management of inventories so far in this expansion (chart). Inventories at factories and at wholesale- and retail-trade companies rose 0.2% in April, as sales fell 0.8%. However, the ratio of inventories to sales edged up only slightly from its record low of 1.39 in March, to 1.40 in April.

The slowdown in consumer spending will also keep industrial production growing at a modest pace in the second half of 1994. In May, retail sales fell 0.2%, on top of a revised 1.1% drop in April (chart).

The May decline occurred entirely at car dealerships, where receipts slipped 1.9%. Excluding autos, sales rose 0.3%, hardly reversing the 0.7% falloff of April.

Furniture buying remained strong in May, rising 1.7%. Demand for home-related durable goods will start to slow this summer, though, as the increase in mortgage rates bites into housing. Receipts at gasoline stations, restaurants, and clothing stores all continued to fall last month.

So far in the second quarter, retail sales adjusted for inflation are about flat with their average of the first quarter, when they grew at a fast 5.4%. The latest news for June, however, shows that stores were a bit busier this month.

The Johnson Redbook Report, published by Lynch, Jones & Ryan Inc., says that sales at department and chain stores rose 3.6% in the first two weeks of June from May. That's considerably more optimistic than the chain-store sales index, compiled jointly by Mitsubishi Bank Ltd. and Wertheim Schroder & Co., which shows sales up 0.8% in the same period.

A more modest pace of consumer demand is crucial to the downshift in growth overall. Certainly, the slower pace of jobs is not welcome news for those who are out of work, and some companies may suffer from the drop in business. But for the economy as a whole, cruising in third gear is a whole lot better than driving into a ditch while trying to dodge inflation.JAMES C. COOPER AND KATHLEEN MADIGAN


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