WASHINGTON Wholesale prices barreled ahead, while housing and industrial activity faltered a blend of high-costs and slow growth that ensures the Federal Reserve's most likely move on interest rates next week will be no move whatsoever.
Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues have made increasingly clear they're not inclined to cut interest rates further, for fear of aggravating inflation. On the other hand, boosting rates too soon to fend off inflation would hurt an economy already battered by housing, credit and financial woes.
"The Fed is in a box," Ken Mayland, president of ClearView Economics, said after the latest batch of economic barometers were released Tuesday. That's why many economists are predicting the Fed will hold rates steady at 2 percent, a four-year low, at the June 24-25 session.
The Labor Department's Producer Price Index, which measures the costs of goods before they reach store shelves, leaped 1.4 percent in May, the biggest increase in six months. Galloping energy and food prices, which are especially squeezing business profits, figured prominently in the index's pickup.
On Wall Street, the news sent stocks tumbling. The Dow Jones industrials lost 108.78 points to close at 12,160.30.
The economy's problems and high prices for fuel and raw materials are taking a toll on manufacturers and others.
The Federal Reserve reported that industrial production fell 0.2 percent in May, the second straight monthly decline. Plants operated at only a 79.4 percent capacity, the lowest since September 2005 after the Gulf Coast hurricanes. And, there was more fallout from a deeply depressed housing market.
The number of new housing projects started in May fell 3.3 percent to a 975,000 pace the lowest in 17 years as builders pulled back further. Builders are smarting as unsold homes as well as foreclosed homes pile up, adding to already swollen supply. Sagging demand from would-be buyers and more recently rising mortgage rates, are adding to builder headaches.
"Builders are doing exactly the right thing cutting back," said David Seiders, chief economist at the National Association of Home Builders. "Now I'm a little more worried on the interest-rate front. I think we'll see mortgage rates recede to some degree. If not, it will be a tougher road for housing than anticipated."
The housing slump has been the biggest drag on the economy, which has slowed sharply in recent months.
The Fed and the Bush administration are hoping that the central bank's powerful rate cuts since last September which take months to work through the economy along with the government's $168 billion stimulus effort will help lift the country out of its doldrums. It's a gamble, though, as expensive food and gas could make people and businesses hunker down even further.
Yet another report Tuesday showed that the country's "current account" deficit, which is the broadest measure of trade, widened to $176.4 billion in the first quarter, up from $167.2 billion in the final quarter of last year, as the United States' foreign oil bill soared. The current account report covers not only goods and services but also investment flows between the U.S. and other countries.
Some fear that the nation could be headed for a bout of "stagflation," a toxic mix of stagnant economic growth and inflation not seen in decades. But Bernanke who has ramped up his tough anti-inflation talk over the past few weeks has said that's not the case. Bernanke also has said he doesn't see a repeat of a 1970s-style situation where workers demanded and received big pay increases to cover rapidly rising prices.
In the PPI report, when energy and food costs were disregarded, the so-called "core" prices rose a much more modest 0.2 percent in May, an improvement from April's 0.4 percent increase. That suggested that other prices were better behaved.
Still, there are growing concerns that rising energy and food costs will eventually force companies to boost prices for lots of other goods and services, spreading inflation through the economy. That's why Wall Street investors predict the Fed will be forced to boost rates later this year to combat inflation. Others, however, think the Fed won't have to start to raise rates until next year.
Over the past year, overall producer prices have gone up 7.2 percent, while "core" prices have increased 3 percent.
Energy prices were up 4.9 percent in May, the most since November. Diesel fuel prices jumped 11.2 percent, gasoline prices rose 9.3 percent and home heating oil increased 8 percent. Food prices went up a sharp 0.8 percent, the most since March.
Wholesale prices are rising faster than consumer prices because businesses for competitive or other reasons have been limited in their ability to pass along to consumers all of their higher costs from energy and other raw materials.
The Fed is hoping such restraint will continue.
"For now the Fed seems content to talk tough" against inflation, said Stephen Stanley chief economist at RBS Greenwich Capital. "This strategy is risky."