WASHINGTON -- Inflation remained under control in June, while consumers continued to be cautious buyers of retail goods and services, according to two government reports issued yesterday.
The Labor Department said the consumer price index was unchanged last month, in line with market expectations, but still a welcome confirmation to many analysts that the price pressures seen earlier in the year were temporary. The CPI report followed Tuesday's report from the department that producer prices tumbled 0.3% in June.
Separately, the Commerce Department's report showing that retail sales rose a modest 0.4%, largely on auto sales, reinforced the view that the economy is experiencing mild growth that will not stir inflationary pressures soon. Excluding autos, retail sales rose only 0.2% in June after an ever weaker 0.1% gain in May.
"We're left with a slow growth environment that makes it very difficult for inflation to gain a foothold," said Peter Greenbaum, an economist with Smith Barney, Harris & Upham & Co.
Alan C. Lerner, formerly a managing director at Bankers Trust Co. who now heads his own consulting firm, called the CPI figures "excellent."
"Inflation has bottomed but is not ready to turn up," he said. "Concerns are unwarranted at this point. There is nothing driving economic growth to make the inflation scare worse than it is."
Market perceptions about inflation have been zigzagging all year on the monthly Labor Department reports on consumer and producer prices. Unsettlingly high figures for January and February smashed hopes that price pressures would continue to moderate this year. Low figures in the March reports cooled inflation jitters in the market, only to be followed by worrisome reports again in April.
Despite evidence that the early-year figures were a statistical anomaly, Federal Reserve officials took a hard-line view and voted 10 to 2 in May to lean toward higher short-term rates.
Since then, the price reports for May and June have reassured the bond market and helped buoy investor sentiment. That feeling was at work again yesterday as the yield on the Treasury long bond tumbled to 6.57% in intraday trading.
"Inflation fears have subsided substantially, and that's the major thrust behind the bond market's rally that we have been seeing," said Lynn Reaser, chief economist for First Interstate Bancorp., in Los Angeles.
The Labor Department's overall consumer price index was up at an annual rate of 3.1% for the first six months of the year, but up only 2.2% in the last three months. The index for the closely watched core rate of inflation, which measures prices excluding food and energy, was up 3.6% in the last six months but only 2.9% in the last three months.
Economists said slow growth in employment, weak foreign economies cutting demand for exports, defense cutbacks, and business worries over taxes and health care continue to hold things back.
"Inflationary pressures remained contained by the relatively moderate pace of the economy," said Reaser, who estimates prices will be up between 3% and 31/2% in 1994.
However, not all analysts were sanguine about the inflation look, and many continue to expect Fed officials to tighten policy in the last three months of the year.
"Certainly anxiety should be lessened, but it can never be totally removed. And if there's a worrisome spot in the economy, it's the recurring nature of unexpected price increases," said Paul Lally, an economist with R.H. Wrightson & Associates.
The 0.4% increase in retail sales in June matched the revised gain for May, a slightly stronger showing than the weak rise of 0.1% originally reported. Sales of cars and light trucks led the stepped-up buying, posting strong gains for the third straight month.
Sales in other categories were mixed. Department store sales jumped 1.1% for the second straight month, and clothing sales were up 0.8%. But sales at gasoline service stations and drugstores were off, and food sales were unchanged.