Fears of inflation have replaced a preoccupation with recession in the nation's financial markets, but some economists say the threat of rising prices is highly exaggerated.
These economists argue that, unlike the 1970s, when price spirals became ingrained, the economy of the 1980s has been reshaped by fundamental changes that have restrained costs and wages, two key components of inflation.Moreover, their reasoning goes, the highly competitive global economy and higher U.S. productivity provide compelling evidence that acute inflation will not revisit the United States any time soon.
"There's a very slow learning process in the markets," said John Hek-man, senior economist at the Claremont Economics Institute, a forecasting firm in Claremont, Calif., which rejects the prevalent thinking about inflation fear. "We've had inflation scares every year."
Unfounded or not, the anxiety has helped wrench down stock and bond prices and raised long-term Treasury yields to the highest levels of 1988. The Federal Reserve has been maneuvering to tighten credit as a preemptive step to thwart inflation, and on Wednesday banks responded by raising their prime lending rates.
To some degree, economists say, inflation anxiety results from the stock market crash seven months ago. After the collapse the Fed used a mix of confidence-building public statements and big injections of money into the banking system to quell fears that a recession loomed.
Since then the economy has shown surprising strength, but uncertainies have lingered.
Many investors now say they fear a rapidly expanding economy, because it would mean higher wages, more demand for credit and too much money chasing too few goods. That translates into inflation.
The economists who dispute that view argue that wages have not risen, despite the lowest unemployment in 14 years. On the contrary, wages have fallen in some areas relative to inflation, which last year totaled 4.4 percent and for the first three months of this year ran at an annual rate of 4.2 percent.
"Labor costs have remained meek and mild," said Richard Belous, a labor economist at the Conference Board, a business-financed economic research group in New York.
"If inflationary costs start getting imbedded in labor costs, then the ballgame's over, but I don't think it's happening," Belous said.
The labor market is radically different now, with many companies having restructured into smaller, leaner operations with non-union workers, Belous and others say.
Moreover, many Americans work in temporary and part-time jobs that offer relatively low wages, little job security and often no benefits.