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FOOD, ENERGY COSTS LEAD .1% WHOLESALE-PRICE DIP

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Wholesale prices turned in their best performance of the year in April, posting a 0.1 percent decline as both food and energy costs fell, the government reported Thursday.

The decrease in the Labor Department's Producer Price Index, which measures inflation pressures before they reach the consumer, was the first monthly decline since a similar 0.1 percent decrease last December.For the past 12 months, wholesale prices have fallen by 0.4 percent, the first time they have decreased over a 12-month period since January 1992.

While both the wholesale price report and the consumer price report, which will be released Friday, have been well behaved this year, fears have continued to grow in financial markets that inflation is about to get out of control.

Those fears have been driven by the unexpected rapid pace of economic growth and have continued to rise despite the fact that the Federal Reserve has moved three times this year to boost interest rates as a way of slowing growth and keeping inflation under control.

Analysts said that despite Thursday's good news on inflation, they still expected Fed policymakers to decide to boost rates further when they meet again next Tuesday.

In another economic news, the Commerce Department reported Thursday that retail sales fell by an unexpectedly sharp 0.8 percent in April, the second decline in fourth months. Analysts blamed much of the weakness on the fact that Easter came early this year, pushing many sales into March.

A third report Thursday showed that the number of newly laid off workers filing claims for unemployment benefits rose by 26,000 last week to 378,000, the highest level since late January. It marked the fifth time in the past six weeks that jobless claims have risen.

The 0.1 percent decline in wholesale prices followed a modest 0.2 percent increase in March.

The decline reflected the fact that energy prices dropped 0.1 percent despite the fact that gasoline prices rose last month by 1 percent. This gain was offset by a 5.3 percent decline in home heating oil costs, the biggest drop since December. And natural gas prices fell by 0.4 percent.

Food prices decreased 0.5 percent, reversing a 0.5 percent rise in March. For April, fruit prices fell 4.1 percent, reflecting big drops in the price of strawberries, down 44.7 percent, apples, down 8.8 percent and grapefruit, down 8.7 percent.

Vegetable prices were down 2.9 percent as the cost of eggplant decreased 55.3 percent; squash was down 53.1 percent; sweet corn prices fell 52 percent, and snap bean prices fell 36 percent.

Outside the volatile food and energy sectors, wholesale prices rose a tiny 0.1 percent, following a 0.2 percent increase in March.

In this category, passenger car prices were up 0.3 percent but tobacco products actually posted a decline of 0.9 percent, the biggest drop since a huge 24.2 percent decrease last August.

The Clinton administration has been insisting repeatedly in the face of a growing number of strong economic reports that there is still no evidence of rising inflationary pressures.