Plenty of products pleasantly priced

Cheap oil, food, and PCs put smiles on the faces of American consumers

The sunset months of the 20th century are becoming the time of the "kick-up-the-heels" consumer.

From gas pumps to supermarket meat chillers, prices are lower and steadier than at any time since the heyday of 10-cent phone calls and 20-cent hamburgers three decades ago.

For consumers, these are the good old days.

Inflationary figures for 1998 are to be released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics next week. In all likelihood, the report will say prices have inched up by less than 2 percent for the second year in a row.

Not since the 1960s - the last time there was such measly year-on-year inflation - have price rises been so wimpy and pocketbooks so robust, according to bureau statistics.

Economists expect most prices to fall further or stay low at least until the second half of 1999. They point to several reasons:

• Severe recession will keep inhibiting demand and export prices in East Asia.

• The price of oil and other commodities will fall or remain weak as producers in developing countries compete for shrinking demand.

• US corporations must keep prices low to fend off keener competition from globalization and to retain market share in a slowing US economy.

"We can plan for slower growth as deflation and global recession begin to more adversely affect our domestic markets," says Jerry Jasinowski, president of the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington.

Gross domestic product is expected to slow to between 1.5 percent and 2 percent in 1999, according to Merrill Lynch.

Despite a broad disinflationary meltdown, some prices will spike up, mostly because of isolated glitches in supply. For example, the price of citrus fruits surged 61.6 percent during the first nine months of last year because heavy winter rains and a dry spring and summer ravaged Florida orchards.

But the cost of food and energy, two of the biggest and most volatile forces in a household's budget, should be tame if not downright groveling for many months, say sector experts.

Oil barrels downward

Crashing demand in East Asia and disarray among members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries has pushed down the price of gasoline to its lowest level - in inflation-adjusted terms - in a quarter century.

The low price boosts consumers far beyond the gas pump by bolstering corporate profits and encouraging price cuts in virtually all sectors of the economy.

Gasoline prices will probably continue to ebb for at least six months, says Zev Grossman, oil and gas sector analyst at Deutsche Bank Securities in New York. "This reduces inflationary pressures on the consumer significantly," he says.

Food prices plummet

A severe slump in the price of meat and grain, especially corn, should help hold down food prices well into this year, say agricultural analysts. Again, cascading foreign demand has eroded prices.

Corn exports in the year ending Sept. 1 were 25 percent below original estimates.

Hog prices have fallen to an inflation adjusted price not seen since the 1930s, largely because of an oversupply and weak demand from East Asia and Russia.

The low price of pork, to say nothing of feeble exports, has helped keep the price of meats low, says Terry Francl, senior economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation.

"Given what has happened with meat, overall food costs will be unchanged in the first six months of 1999," says Mr. Francl. "Consumers will have good supplies at very reasonable and stable prices."

PCs, price-cut paragon

The tailspin in the price for personal computers, the decade's biggest mass-market spectacle in deflation, will probably continue for several more months, says Todd Thibodeaux, vice president of market research at the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association in Arlington, Va.

During the past five years the average price of a personal computer has fallen annually by more than 15 percent.

Manufacturers who unveiled the below-$1,000 PC during Christmas 1997 yanked the cloth off below-$500 models last month.

"You can't find a more competitive market than the retail PC market," says Mr. Thibodeaux. "The brutal price competition is great for consumers."

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