Consumer prices expected to rise slightly faster in '85

Inflation has behaved well in 1984. But economists warn that it could pinch consumers' pocketbooks a bit more in the New Year as the economic recovery matures.

Late developments at a meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), however, indicate that oil prices may continue to fall next year, thus reducing somewhat the danger that inflation will reignite.

The government's consumer price index for November rose just 0.2 percent after adjustment for seasonal factors, the Labor Department reported Thursday. The good performance was aided by lower prices for fuel oil, cars, clothes, and holiday turkeys and sweets.

November's upward creep in prices brought the inflation rate in the January-to-November period to 4.1 percent. By comparison, prices rose 3.8 percent in 1983 and 3.9 percent in 1982.

But prices are expected to increase at a slightly faster pace in 1985, fueled by a variety of factors. These include growing upward pressure on wages and an expected decline in the value of the dollar on foreign-exhange markets as US interest rates fall, economist say.

The consensus view among 47 top economists surveyed by the Sedona, Ariz., newsletter ''Blue Chip Economic Indicators'' is that consumer prices will climb 4.5 percent next year.

There will be no sharp acceleration in inflation, says David Berson of Wharton Ecometric Forecating Associates, because ''we are still a considerable distance from full utilization'' of the nation's factories.

''And we are a long way away'' from reducing unemployment to a point where further hiring will cause serious upward pressure on wages and, eventually, on prices, Mr. Berson says. Shortages of factory capacity and qualified employees are two major causes for rising inflation rates during the latter stages of most recoveries.

Other economists say the pressure from approaching the economy's productive limits, coupled with the expected decline in the dollar, could push inflation higher than the consensus view. Alan Murray, a vice-president at New York's Citibank, says he expects inflation to average 5.5 percent in 1985 for those reasons.

And by the end of 1985 ''inflation should be poised to move into the 6 to 7 percent range if the world economy keeps improving,'' says David Hale, chief economist at Kemper Financial Services in Chicago.

The inflation forecast is clouded by major uncertainties, including the actual growth rate for the United States and world economies, the outlook for the dollar, and the precise course of oil prices.

Business spending, a major engine for economic growth, will be much slower in 1985 than in 1984, the Commerce Department said Thursday. Businesses boosted spending on modernization and expansion by an estimated 13.3 percent in 1984 but will hike spending only 6.8 percent next year, the department said. Both figures are adjusted for inflation.

On the oil-price front, OPEC oil ministers agreed Thursday morning to hold the cartel's official price at $29 a barrel and its production ceiling at 16 million barrels a day. The group's afternoon session was expected to focus on the question of adjusting the formula that OPEC uses for pricing products.

Currently, light OPEC crude oil sells in the spot, or open, market for about oil sells for roughly 10 cents a barrel more than OPEC's benchmark price for that product of $26 a barrel.

The pricing disparities have helped cause an oversupply of light crude. This has triggered under-the-table price discounts and production quota violations by OPEC members. The cartel is believed to be exceeding its official 16 million barrel-a-day production ceiling by as much as 1 million barrels.

Most oil analysts say that without cutting production, OPEC cannot halt the slide of oil prices in the spot market. ''The only way to stem the erosion is to curtail supply,'' says John Lichtblau, executive director of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation, an industry supported group.

Next year's inflation rate could be significantly influenced by a sharp drop in the dollar's value. Such a change could ''wreak a great deal of havoc'' with the inflation rate, says Sandra Shaber, senior economist at Chase Econometrics.

The strong dollar has made imported items relatively good buys for US consumers, forcing US companies competing with those goods to hold down prices. But if the dollar's value declines against major foreign currencies, it could boost the US inflation rate by raising the dollar price of imported goods and taking pressure off US companies to hold down prices.

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