The weather vanes of inflation have been pointing in opposite directions lately, complicating the lives of some prominent forecasters.
One of those forecasters, President Bush, said in the Valentine's Day edition of the Wall Street Journal that now was not the time to tighten credit to fight inflation.The unnamed recipient of Bush's Valentine message, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, has been doing exactly that - tightening credit to fight inflation.
Both men have sought to play down their disagreement, but it stands out as a classic confrontation between a president who favors strong economic growth and a Fed chairman who worries too-rapid growth will heat up inflation.
The consensus outlook for inflation is not bad, a 4.7 percent rise in consumer prices in 1989, according to a survey of 51 economists by Blue Chip Economic Indicators of Sedona, Ariz. That's not much above last year's 4.4 percent increase.
The confusion exists because plenty of good statistics can back up the argument that inflation is a growing problem - as well as the argument that it's not a growing problem.
Here is a look at some of the widely watched inflation weather vanes and what they are showing:
CONSUMER PRICES: The consumer price index finished 1988 with a pair of 0.3 percent monthly increases, indicating that inflation remained moderate. But some economists fear this Wednesday's report on January prices will show a steeper rise.
WHOLESALE PRICES: One reason for the worry about Wednesday's report is that wholesale prices shot up at a 12.7 percent annual rate in January. It may have been partly a quirk, but wholesale prices have been rising faster than consumer prices, a worrisome sign.
FACTORY USE: When factories are running flat out, inflation tends to rise because companies have to bid for scarce raw materials and labor. January's operating rate was 84.2 percent.
WAGES: Some big labor contracts are up for renewal this year, including ones covering 550,000 phone workers and the four major steel companies. Unionized workers have been getting below-average raises in pay and benefits in the last few years. If they hold out for catch-up increases, inflation could climb.
CONSUMER SPENDING: Since spending by consumers accounts for two-thirds of U.S. consumption, the latest 0.6 percent rise in retail sales in January could point toward overheating, some economists believe.
COMMODITY PRICES: Higher prices for raw materials produce what's known as cost-push inflation. The spot price index of the Commodity Research Bureau - covering everything from zinc to rubber - is just 5 percent below its all-time peak of November 1980 and up a sharp 10 percent from one year ago. On the positive side, crude oil futures are about flat with a year ago.
THE DOLLAR: The dollar's strength, while harmful to U.S. exporters, has helped restrain inflation by holding down the dollar price of imported products. But if the dollar turns down because of bad trade figures, import price inflation would rise.
The price of gold has dropped about 15 percent over the past year - one sign that many investors are not overly concerned about the inflationary threat.
MONETARY RESTRAINT: Under Greenspan, the Federal Reserve remains vigilant against inflation.