The U.S. faces an unwelcome combination of looming recession and persistent inflation that is reviving angst about stagflation, a condition not seen since the 1970s.
Inflation is rising. Yesterday the Labor Department said consumer prices in the U.S. jumped 0.4% in January and are up 4.3% over the past 12 months, near a 16-year high. Even stripping out sharply rising food and energy costs, prices rose 0.3% in January, driven by education, medical care, clothing and hotels. They are up by 2.5% from the previous year, a 10-month high.
The same day brought news that sparked worries of a deepening recession. The Federal Reserve disclosed that its policymakers lowered their forecast for economic growth this year to between 1.3% and 2%, half a percentage point below the level of their previous forecast, in October. They blamed a further intensification on the slump in housing prices, tighter lending standards and higher oil prices. They warned that should the economy's performance differ from its revised forecast, it would be more likely to fall short than outperform
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A news analysis by Graham Bowley in the New York Times agrees that '70s-style stagflation may be making a comeback:
Even as economic growth sags, oil and gasoline prices are surging to new heights. Gold is on the rise, along with the prices of such basic commodities as wheat and steel. And on Wednesday, with the latest government report on consumer prices, there are signs that overall inflation, after years of only modest increases, may be breaking out of its box.
For the Federal Reserve and its chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, all this could not come at a worse time. With the credit markets in disarray from the collapse of the housing bubble, Mr. Bernanke is cutting rates in a headlong rush to blunt the risks of recession.
But in putting its emphasis above all on reviving growth, America's central bank, according to some economists and even a few Fed officials, may face a bigger inflation problem down the road.
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