WASHINGTON - In the latest signs of the U.S. economy's weakness, reports yesterday showed sharp declines in housing prices but higher costs for almost everything else.
And there was a third dose of bad news, prompted mostly by the slump in housing and rising inflation: Consumer confidence fell to the lowest point since just before the Iraq war began.
Yesterday's reports raised the threat of a return of "stagflation," the economic curse of the 1970s, in which economic growth stagnates at the same time that inflation continues racing ahead.
The government said inflation at the wholesale level, driven by higher costs for such basics as food and energy, rose in January at the fastest pace in a quarter-century.
The 1 percent January increase in the Producer Price Index was led by a surge in the prices of energy, food and prescription drugs and followed a report last week that consumer prices had risen a greater-than-expected 0.4 percent because of price pressures in the same areas.
During the last 12 months, wholesale prices rose 7.4 percent, the largest yearly gain since late 1981.
Analysts warned consumers to brace for more bad inflation news, with crude-oil prices rising yesterday to a record $100.88 per barrel and with more evidence that the prolonged jump in energy costs was starting to develop into more widespread price problems.
Meanwhile, the New York-based Conference Board said its consumer confidence index had fallen to 75.0 in February from a revised January reading of 87.3. The drop was far greater than analysts had forecast and put the index at its lowest level since February 2003, a time characterized by anxiety shortly before the Iraq war began.
In the Middle Atlantic states - Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York - the index fell to 62.5 from 72.2 in January.
The index, drawn from a survey of 5,000 households nationwide, is based on a 1985 level of 100.
The day's third report showed that home prices, measured by the S&P/Case-Shiller Index, dropped 9 percent in the fourth quarter of last year compared with the same period in 2006. It was the steepest such decline in the 20-year history of the index.
Analysts said rising inflation, slumping home prices, a turbulent stock market, and an economy flirting with a recession were combining to rattle consumers' nerves.
"There is no evidence that the recent collapse in consumer confidence is going to turn around anytime soon," said Brian Bethune, senior economist at Global Insight Inc.
He predicted the drop in confidence would lead to a cutback in consumer spending, triggering a brief recession in the first half of this year.
The wholesale price report said energy costs had increased 1.5 percent, gasoline prices had risen 2.9 percent, and the cost of home heating oil had soared 8.5 percent. Food costs jumped 1.7 percent, the biggest monthly increase in three years.