Wholesale prices rose 0.4 percent in April, as a decline in food costs was offset by the biggest jump in energy costs this year.
Gasoline prices, which have attracted the attention of politicians from both parties, soared 6.1 percent in April.The Labor Department said Friday last month's increase in its Producer Price Index, which measures inflationary pressures before they reach the consumer, followed an even bigger 0.5 percent gain in March.
However, the April advance was slightly below market expectations. And excluding the volatile food and energy components, the so-called core rate of inflation was up only 0.1 percent in April.
Financial markets have been extremely jittery of late as reports have accumulated of rising prices for energy and certain food products and faster-than-expected economic growth.
The fear has been that the Federal Reserve will be forced to start raising interest rates to cool off an overheated economy.
However, many private analysts have argued that these fears are overblown. They insist that the price increases are temporary and not an indication of a permanent deterioration in what has been a remarkable four-year period of good inflation news.
Many economists have said they believe the Fed will leave rates unchanged when they meet May 21. That view received support earlier this week with release of a new Fed survey of economic conditions around the country that said it had not found definitive signs of rising inflationary pressures.
Still, with the 0.4 percent rise in the PPI for April, inflation at the wholesale level has been rising at an annual rate of 3 percent so far this year, far ahead of the 1.9 percent rate of increase in 1995.
The news at the consumer level has been just as bad. Consumer prices through March have been rising at an annual rate of 4 percent, far above the 2.5 percent advance of last year. The government will release its April report on consumer prices next Tuesday.
At the wholesale level, the 6.1 percent rise in gasoline prices in April followed an even bigger 7.1 percent rise in March, representing quite a turnaround from the performance for most of 1995 when gasoline prices were falling.
Analysts have blamed the spurt in gasoline prices on an unusually cold winter, which forced refineries to produce more home heating oil, depleting their stockpiles just as the spring driving season was getting underway.
Economists believe this is a temporary price blip. But Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, seeking to allay voters' anxieties, has called for a repeal of the 4.3-cent-per gallon increase in the federal gasoline tax passed in 1993 as part of President Clinton's deficit reduction program.
Clinton this week said he would support this proposal but only if it was linked to an increase in the minimum wage.
The government report on wholesale prices found that food costs dropped 0.3 percent in April, after having surged by 0.6 percent in March.
The favorable turnaround was credited to a big 15.5 percent drop in vegetable prices. The month before vegetable costs had skyrocketed by 43.1 percent. However, in April, lettuce prices declined by 50.3 percent with snap beans, green peppers and cauliflowers also showing big price decreases.
Fruit prices edged down 2.2 percent, the second straight monthly decline as the price of strawberries fell by 31.9 percent and prices for apples and avocados were also down.
The 0.1 percent gain in the core rate of inflation was the fifth straight month of moderation for that component.
The price of new cars was down 0.1 percent while tobacco prices were unchanged.