OPEC's Oil Squeeze Wakes Up U.S. Inflation

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Robert Rubin's been a lame duck for only one day -- could the economy be overheating already? Well, Thursday's round of economic reports from Washington certainly raised a few red flags. The Labor Department's Producer Price Index (PPI) rose 0.5 percent in April, up from March's rise of just 0.2 percent. And though retail sales for April rose only 0.1 percent, inflation hawks would have much preferred a drop -- considering that April was the ninth straight month that America's drunken-sailor consumers spent more than the month before. TIME senior economics reporter Bernard Baumohl says the gentle economic slowdown those hawks were hoping for hasn't materialized -- and real inflation worries are a ways down the road.

"This is just a temporary spike," he says. "The jump in the PPI -- like the jump in the Consumer Price Index that's expected tomorrow -- is mostly because the oil-production cuts that OPEC instituted in March have only now kicked in. Things should level off again in May." But -- and there's always one where economic forecasting is concerned -- if that slowdown doesn't happen, the Asian bullet that Rubin/Greenspan/Summers dodged last winter may well get them on the ricochet. "If the recovery in the crisis economies continues," says Baumohl, "the U.S. will start to see real inflationary pressure toward the end of 1999." Then we'll see what Larry Summers is made of.