The economy is frisky, and the bond market is worried. The Federal Reserve wouldn't raise interest rates, would it?
Almost surely not, most economists think, but recent data on business conditions leave some room for doubt.
Friday's report on the producer price index for April, up only 0.4% versus a 0.5% rise in March, stirred few inflationary fears. Still, gasoline prices were up a sharp 6.1% in the month, and heating oil rose a startling 13.3%.
Perhaps more troubling, the Fed's own regular survey of business conditions, called the Beige Book, last week noted the job market was tight in several regions during April and the final weeks of the first quarter.
Despite that, little upward pressure on wages was reported, but Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan is surely watching closely.
Mr. Greenspan is known to keep a wary eye on such data, and he undoubtedly wants to preserve his reputation as an inflation fighter.
Among the business economists most worried about inflation prospects is Charles Lieberman, chief economist at Chase Securities Inc., a unit of Chase Manhattan Corp.
Mr. Lieberman is troubled by the 3.7% rate of increase in average hourly earnings so far this year, versus last year's 3% rate. He also frets about price increases in the food and energy sectors.
"Labor accounts for more than two-thirds of the cost of producing gross domestic product," he said in a recent commentary, "while food and energy are essentials that are hard to avoid."
Still, Mr. Lieberman thinks the Fed "will be slow to tighten policy in reaction" to the economy's firmer tone overall.
Why? Because the central bank was the target of much criticism for raising rates in 1994, including not a few arrows from Wall Street itself.
Surely the hue and cry over credit tightening would be louder in a presidential election year, even if the Fed again claimed the need to cut off inflation at the pass.
"Greenspan received no credit for having tightened preemptively, thereby averting higher inflation in 1994," said Mr. Lieberman in a recent commentary on economic prospects. "In fact, he has been criticized relentlessly for fighting ghosts."
Thus, the Fed seems likely to wait longer this time. Indeed, Mr. Lieberman thinks, inflation will have to become a visible problem "before the Fed is comfortable dealing with it."