Inflation `nirvana' steadies Wall Street

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The Independent Online
Shares on Wall Street partly reversed Thursday's dive after new figures showed the American economy delivering strong growth and falling inflation.

By mid-morning the Dow Jones index was nearly 60 points higher and it closed last night up 56.57 points at 6935.46 . The buoyant start helped London's FTSE 100 index end nearly 27 points higher at 4,424.3.

With investors using every fresh set of statistics to try to predict whether Alan Greenspan, the Fed chairman, will decide to raise interest rates later this month, further ups and downs in share and bond prices look inevitable.

"The markets are living in fear. They are looking out for the next possible piece of bad news," warned Ian Harwood, international economist at Dresdner Kleinwort Benson.

The Federal Reserve reported yesterday that industrial output had climbed 0.5 per cent last month after a 0.1 per cent decline in January. The capacity utilisation rate in industry edged up to 83.3 per cent.

Separate figures showed that prices charged by manufacturers at the factory gate nevertheless fell by 0.4 per cent last month, taking their annual inflation rate down from 2.5 per cent to 2.2 per cent. Even though much of the drop was due to falling food and energy prices, the core rate of producer price inflation declined to 0.5 per cent. This happy combination - described as "nirvana" by one analyst - followed news on Thursday of a surge in retail spending in the first two months of the year, and figures last week showing a leap of 339,000 in employment in February.

The pessimists who expect Mr Greenspan to opt for a quarter-point rise in borrowing costs after the Fed's 25 March meeting focus on the strength of the economy combined with the Fed chairman's recent warning that he will take pre-emptive action against future inflation if necessary.

There was some evidence in yesterday's figures of higher prices in the pipeline. On the other hand optimists point to the absence of any signs of inflation on the immediate horizon. This means February's consumer price figures next week will be the next focus for the financial markets' angst.