Clearer picture on inflation expected this week

/ Source: The Associated Press

With oil prices coming off a record high, investors will look to the Federal Reserve and key pricing data from the Labor Department for a read on Wall Street’s biggest fear of the moment — inflation.

Some analysts have called on the Fed to be more aggressive in raising short-term interest rates to help shore up the dollar and stabilize oil prices, but the Fed’s Open Market Committee is still expected to raise the nation’s benchmark rate by only a quarter percentage point to 2.75 percent during Tuesday’s meeting.

Wall Street will look to the Fed’s accompanying policy statement for any signs that the central bank believes inflation has become more of an issue. Any changes in the statement could move stocks significantly.

Two key pieces of economic data will also help investors assess the impact of oil prices on inflation. The Producer Price Index comes out on Monday, while the Consumer Price Index is due Wednesday. A higher-than-expected jump in either index could have serious repercussions throughout the market.

CPI, PPI increases predicted
Last week, a surge in crude oil futures prompted a second straight week of heavy selling on Wall Street. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 1.34 percent, the Standard & Poor’s 500 index was down 0.87 percent, and the Nasdaq composite index dropped 1.66 percent. The Nasdaq fell to a four-month low on Friday on weakness in chip stocks.

On Monday, economists expect the Producer Price Index, a measure of wholesale prices, to rise 0.3 percent in February, the same pace as January. “Core” PPI, with food and fuel prices removed, is expected to rise just 0.1 percent after January’s surprising 0.8 percent surge that reinvigorated the market’s inflation fears.

The Consumer Price Index is due Wednesday, with prices expected to rise 0.3 percent for February, up slightly from an 0.1 percent climb in January. Core CPI is expected to climb 0.2 percent, the same as January, though investors will watch closely for signs that January’s hike in producer prices has been passed down to consumers.

Ones to watch: Oracle, General Mills
With a bare handful of notable companies reporting earnings this week, Oracle Corp. will be under heavy scrutiny as it releases its results Tuesday afternoon. The software company, whose chief financial officer resigned Thursday, must also account for the costs associated with assimilating PeopleSoft Inc. Oracle is expected to earn 15 cents per share for the quarter, up from 12 cents a year ago. Shares of Oracle have dropped 14.3 percent since closing at a 52-week high of $14.63 on Dec. 13, finishing Friday at $12.54.

Food producer General Mills Inc. has fared far better, rising 19 percent since finishing at $43.30 on Oct. 22, closing Friday at $51.53. The company is expected to post profits of 69 cents per share for the quarter, up from 64 cents a year ago, when it releases its earnings Tuesday morning.

On Thursday morning, rival food producer ConAgra Inc. will release its earnings. The company is expected to earn 32 cents per share, down from 39 cents in the 2004 quarter. Shares of ConAgra have fallen 9.7 percent from its Jan. 21 close of $30, finishing Friday at $27.10.