Nation's rising prices may level off soon

Consumer prices surged in January but will be better behaved as the year progresses, most economists say. ''The jump in consumer prices in January is a transitory development caused primarily by higher food prices,'' says Jerry Jasinowski, chief economist of the National Association of Manufacturers. He figures inflation will be in the 5 percent range during 1984.

But a handful of forecasters are warning that more serious inflationary problems are ahead.

Inflation will be higher than the 4 to 6 percent range most economists expect , according to Geoffrey H. Moore, director of Columbia University's Center for International Business Cycle Research.

''By year end the inflation rate could be above 7 percent,'' economist Lawrence Kudlow recently warned clients in a newsletter.

Mr. Moore cites a variety of warning signals, including the fact that raw-material prices are rising at a rate ''larger than the average'' for this stage in the recovery. Raw-material prices often foreshadow consumer price trends.

And very rapid growth of goverment securities in the hands of individuals indicates that purchasing power is rising sharply. This adds to the level of business activity ''but also produces higher prices,'' he warns.

Already, consumer prices are moving at a faster clip than they did in average recoveries since World War II, Moore says. Since March 1983, consumer prices (after technical adjustments) are up 4.6 percent vs. a 3 percent rise in consumer prices at the same stage of previous recoveries. And an index the center uses to predict inflation has risen 14 percent in the past 12 months, he adds.

Last month the government's consumer price index rose at a 7.8 percent seasonally adjusted annual rate, the fastest pace since the 8.5 percent rise in April 1983.

Food prices were the leading culprit in the inflation surge, rising 1.6 percent in Janaury and at a 9.3 perent compounded rate over the past three months.

As a result of the restructuring of the telephone industry, phone service costs rose 5.2 percent as local charges soared. Significant boosts also were posted in the price of medical care and miscellaneous goods and services. In both categories, prices rose 7/10 of 1 percent in January.

Despite these figures, says White House spokesman Larry Speakes, ''The prospects remain excellent for continued low rates of inflation.''

''We are not going to see a return to the near zero or extremely low rates of inflation of a year ago,'' says Sandra Shaber, senior economist at Chase Econometrics, a forecasting firm. Those low inflaton rates were, in large part, a result of the recession's downward pressure on prices, she says.

''On the other hand, we are not headed back to . . . double-digit inflation, '' Mrs. Shaber adds. She says consumer prices will average 5 percent higher this year than in 1983 when they rose 3.8 percent on a December-to-December basis.

That 5 percent inflation forecast is shared by Sara Johnson, a senior economist at Data Resources Inc., another forecasting firm. She notes that a number of special factors, most of them nonrecurring, played a role in January's price hike.

Much of the sharp rise in food prices was due to harsh winter weather and the effects of disease among some chicken flocks, she says. The effects of avian flue ''will be perhaps a three- or four-month phenomenon,'' she says, since there is a fast breeding cycle for poultry.

The effects of last summer's drought and the resulting poor grain harvest will be longer lasting. With higher grain costs, livestock herds are being reduced, causing ''some tightening of meat supplies and tightening of pork and beef prices,'' she says.

In January heating oil prices also rose sharply, jumping 2.6 percent. But since late January, the New York City spot market price of heating oil has dropped from $1.07 a gallon to 78 cents a gallon. ''By March or April we will see some declines'' in retail oil prices, she says. Meanwhile, natural gas prices fell in January.

Forecasters say January's consumer-price numbers will not lead the Federal Reserve Board to clamp down on the money supply in a bid to cool the economy and weaken inflation. However, other factors may cause the Fed to act.

''Certainly the January inflation rate will not cause them to bring down interest rates,'' economist Johnson says. ''But if they analyze the factors contributing to the increase, there is no need for alarm.''

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