WASHINGTON – Even though the once barreling U.S. economy is now slowing down, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on Monday called recent increases in inflation unwelcome and pledged to make sure surging energy prices don't make things worse.
In deciding the Federal Reserve's next rate move in late June, Bernanke said the inflation outlook "will receive particular scrutiny." Fed policy-makers "will be vigilant" to ensure that the recent pattern of higher readings in core inflation, which excludes food and energy prices, "is not sustained," he said in remarks prepared for an international monetary conference here.
On Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrials slid 160 points as Bernanke's fresh warnings on inflation rattled investors.
Bernanke offered his most extensive assessment of current economic conditions and the challenges facing Fed policy-makers.
"With the economy now evidently in a period of transition, monetary policy must be conducted with great care and with close attention to the evolution of the economic outlook," Bernanke said. He stressed anew that future rate decisions will rely heavily on what economic barometers say about inflation and business activity.
So far this year, inflation at the consumer level has been elevated in large part by rising energy prices, Bernanke said.
As measured by the Consumer Price Index, "core" inflation -- which excludes food and energy prices -- rose at an annual rate of 3.2 percent over the last three months and 2.8 percent over the past six months. "These are unwelcome developments," he said.
Fed policy-makers pay close attention to "core" inflation figures to get a better sense of how prices of lots of other goods and services are behaving. As these core measures have marched higher, economists have worried that surging energy prices are feeding into higher price tags for more and more items.
Oil prices, which hit a record high of more than $75 a barrel, are hovering around $73 a barrel. Gasoline prices have climbed, topping $3 a gallon in some areas.
To combat inflation, Fed policy-makers have boosted interest rates 16 times since June 2004. The Fed, which meets next on 28-29, has said that coming rate decisions will rely heavily on how barometers on economic activity and inflation look.
Some economists believe the Fed will raise rates again at that time to blunt inflation. Others, however, think the Fed will leave rates alone, taking a pause in its two-year rate-raising campaign to assess economic conditions.
The economy, which grew at a brisk 5.3 percent pace in the opening quarter of this year, is slowing to a more moderate pace, Bernanke said. Higher energy prices are playing a role by making some consumers more cautious in their spending. Another factor is a cooling housing market, he said.
"The anticipated moderation of economic growth seems now to be under way," he declared.
Private economists believe economic growth in the April-to-June quarter will probably clock in around a 2.5 percent pace or slightly better.
Although consumers, who account for two-thirds of all economic activity, are showing signs of moderating their buying appetite, businesses on the other hand are spending and investing at a robust clip, Bernanke noted.
He also pointed out that the slower job creation seen in recent months and an edging up in filings for unemployment benefits also are "consistent with the softening in the pace of overall economic activity that seems to be under way."
Employers added just 75,000 jobs in May, the fewest in seven months. Job gains for March and April turned out to be lower than previously thought.