Stag + flate = uh oh!

Economics journalist have been bandying about the S-word for quite some time, but usually in a speculative, "could it happen again?" sort of way. Now the Wall Street Journal's Afternoon Report suggests, yeah, it could, and it is.

Inflation and sluggish growth haven't joined in that ugly brew called stagflation since the 1970s. They may not be ready for a reunion, but they are making simultaneous threats to the economy and battling one might only encourage the other.

Among a batch of economic readings today, the Labor Department reported that import prices jumped 1.7% last month. The data included troubling signs that consumer products, many imported from China, have caught the inflation bug. The signs pointing to slowing growth included a sharp deterioration in consumers' mood, as measured by the Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers, and a worsening outlook for manufacturers, revealed in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York's Empire State Manufacturing survey for February. The government also reported that U.S. industrial production only increased slightly during January, as colder weather elevated utilities output and offset sharp declines in the auto and housing sectors. If indeed inflation is teaming up with slower growth, it means big headaches for policy makers, in particular Ben Bernanke. The Federal Reserve chief in congressional testimony yesterday suggested that he is willing to keep lowering interest-rates if the economy stalls. But, naturally, he will have less room to do so if those lower rates would accelerate inflation to unacceptable levels.

There's long been a pretty compelling argument that the stagflation of the 1970's was basically a productivity shock from the two oil crises. But until now, it's been kind of hard to test. Seeing creeping stagflation paired with oil prices in the 1990s would tend to bolster that theory.