Inflation appears in for a moderate rise

In recent weeks, financial markets have been tuning in to an old horror movie: ``Inflation Runs Amok.'' It had a long run in the 1970s but faded in the early part of the '80s, and it virtually disappeared when oil prices plummeted this year.

But with oil steadying around $15 a barrel, precious metals rising, and some hints that industrial economies are picking up speed, worries about a resumption of inflation have been rekindled among some investors.

Nevertheless, most economists maintain that inflation is not due for a big new burst. The global economic vocabulary, they say, is still laden with terms such as ``deflation,'' ``disinflation,'' or -- at worst -- ``slight inflation.'' Slow growth, lower interest rates, and declining values for commodities continue to characterize the international economy.

A recent survey of leading economists by Blue Chip Economic Enterprises has second-half 1986 economic growth falling slightly for major industrialized countries and inflation forecasts ``receding for most countries except Mexico.'' These economists see somewhat higher growth and only slightly higher inflation in '87.

But inflation made such a vivid impression on financial markets in the 1970s that investors and makers of economic policy continue to worry about its return. In the United States, Europe, and Japan, central bank officials thus have moved cautiously in stimulating their economies to try to forestall recession.

Investors should expect some pickup in inflation as a result, observers say.

``There will be an inevitable uptick in inflation, but not a resumption of strong inflation,'' says Ralph Bryant, senior fellow in economics at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

He sees this occurring because the dip in oil prices in the first half of '86 has reversed itself and the effective devaluation of the dollar is finally beginning to have an impact on the US economy.

This is a ``natural reversal'' says Mr. Bryant, ``but one shouldn't be terribly concerned.''

He detects no evidence of wage and price inflation resuming. So once the oil and dollar effects are factored into the US economic equation, inflation rates should level off.

At Data Resources Inc., a Lexington, Mass., economic consulting firm, economist David A. Wyss reckons that ``the best of the inflation news is past us.'' He expects 3 to 4 percent inflation in 1987, but he notes that ``we're so used to inflation that that looks good.''

The recent run-up in precious metals prices, Mr. Wyss says, can be attributed to factors other than inflation fears.

These include lower interest rates, meaning lower costs of holding precious metals; concern over disruption of gold supplies from South Africa; new gold-coin production in Japan and the US; and lower costs for Germans and Japanese to hold dollar-denominated gold today.

But those are special considerations, he says, and ``nobody is looking for runaway inflation.''

In a recent report on the global economy, Arnold X. Moskowitz, an economist with Dean Witter Reynolds, points out that since 1980, when inflation peaked, ``financial markets forced a major turn in the US government's policies.'' The ``downward course in inflation rates has been unbroken and is now minus 2 percent for the United States, and even lower for others.

``In short,'' Mr. Moskowitz writes, ``in this business cycle, all nations have had low synchronous inflation rates, not seen since the late 1950s.''

For investors around the world, this should continue to make paper assets -- stocks, bonds, and assorted other financial instruments -- a more attractive investment, in general, than hard assets such as real estate and commodities.

``The first rule to keep in mind is that the risk in this type of economy is debt deflation, not an inflationary boom,'' Moskowitz notes. ``The world has excess capacity in all major tradable goods, from oil to agriculture, and from textiles to computers.

``Additionally, the domestic US economy has excess supplies in many areas, such as electricity generation capacity to airline seats, not to mention workers and imported goods.''

All of which, he contends, will keep down wages and prices and ensure that a sequel to the inflation chiller is consigned to relative obscurity. A Thursday column

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