By Martin Crutsinger and Jeannine Aversa, AP Economics Writers
Inflation rises at fastest pace since early 1980s as Fed chair warns of more trouble
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The U.S. economic downturn gained steam Tuesday, with a report of the highest inflation since the early 1980s, more bad news for banks and automakers and a suggestion by the Federal Reserve chief that worse days are ahead.
President Bush sought to bolster confidence by declaring that the financial system was "basically sound," but he conceded: "It's been a difficult time for many American families."
The Labor Department said wholesale inflation, driven by skyrocketing gas and food costs, rose by 9.2 percent for the 12 months ending in June -- the fastest pace since the summer of 1981, during another energy crunch.
At the same time, consumers hit the brakes hard despite a massive infusion of government stimulus checks. Retail sales turned in their poorest showing in four months.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke delivered a somber midyear outlook to Congress, saying the U.S. faces "numerous difficulties" despite the Fed's interest rate-cutting campaign, which began last September in hopes of preventing a recession.
Bernanke said the Fed expected the economy to grow for the rest of this year "appreciably below its trend rate." He cautioned inflation was likely to move "temporarily higher" in the near future.
That puts the Fed in a bind: Rising inflation hamstrings the Fed from cutting interest rates to jump-start the economy. The Fed had already signaled last month the rate cuts were probably at an end.
Outside Washington, there was plenty more bad news. On Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrials closed below 11,000 for the first time in two years, and shares of troubled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac tumbled again. Fannie shed 27.3 percent and Freddie lost 26 percent.
In Los Angeles, police had to order people lined up outside an IndyMac Bank branch to remain calm or face arrest as they tried to pull out their money on the second day of the failed institution's federal takeover.
An analyst downgraded Wachovia Corp. and said the outlook for its shareholders is "bleak." Its already-battered stock sank about 7.7 percent further, to $9.08. U.S. Bancorp posted an 18 percent drop in second-quarter profit and tripled its provision for credit losses.
General Motors said Tuesday it plans to lay off salaried workers, cut truck production and suspend its stock dividend, all in an effort to raise $15 billion to help turn around its North American operations.
The dollar hit a new low against the euro. And even good news came with a dark side: Oil prices fell by more than $6 per barrel -- the biggest single-day drop in 17 years -- as traders fretted that the slowing U.S. economy would dampen demand for crude.
"The country is in a bad spot right now, squeezed by high and accelerating inflation and a very weak economy and struggling to overcome a very severe financial shock," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com.
Wholesale prices for goods before they reach consumers rose by 1.8 percent in June from a year earlier and at 9.2 percent for the 12 months ending in June. Core inflation, which excludes food and energy, was better behaved, rising by just 0.2 percent in June, slightly lower than expected.
Food costs were up 1.5 percent, the biggest increase since January, led by steep gains in the cost of vegetables and eggs. Even pet food jumped by 6 percent, the largest monthly increase on record.
Wholesale energy prices shot up 6 percent. The price of unleaded regular gas surged 9 percent in June on top of a similar increase in May. Home heating oil, natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas also took big jumps.
Retail sales were up just 0.1 percent in June, the worst showing since February. That figure reflected a huge drop in auto sales and would have been even worse had it not been for a big jump in gas sales -- reflecting higher prices, not demand.
Analysts were particularly alarmed by the retail sales report because consumer spending accounts for two thirds of total economic growth. The weak sales came as the government was pumping out $28 billion in economic stimulus checks, bringing the total payments to $78 billion by the end of June.
Those same analysts worried what will happen after the government finishes mailing out the bulk of the checks this month.
"Clearly the economy is on the ropes with weak employment market conditions, declining home and equity prices and surging gasoline prices inducing the consumer to pull back," said Brian Bethune, chief U.S. financial economist at Global Insight.
Despite tough talk on inflation from Bernanke, many analysts predicted that the Fed will keep interest rates unchanged for the rest of the year to give the financial system some breathing room to deal with a tidal wave of mortgage defaults. Those have already resulted in an estimated $400 billion in losses at financial institutions.
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, appearing with Bernanke before the Senate Banking Committee, came under a barrage of tough questions about an emergency plan to bolster Fannie and Freddie, which between them hold or guarantee more than $5 trillion in mortgage debt -- nearly half of the nation's mortgage debt.
The plan would have Congress authorize billions of dollars of government help should the two giant institutions come under increased pressure because of the surge in mortgage loan losses. As a last resort, the government could also invest directly in Fannie and Freddie.
But both Democrats and Republicans on the committee questioned why the administration was seeking what critics term a bailout for two big corporations, with taxpayers left holding the bag in the event of severe losses.
Paulson insisted taxpayers were being protected and said the offer of government help should be enough to calm jittery markets.