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Prices have been soaring long enough and fast enough, economists say, that the nation is at risk of a self-reinforcing cycle of inflation like that experienced in the 1970s.
It is a risk Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke highlighted in a speech yesterday, saying that the falling value of the dollar can feed into inflation expectations, and that rapid price escalation, if sustained, "might lead the public to expect higher long-term inflation rates, an expectation that ultimately could become self-confirming."
For some businesses that already is the reality. Many companies making long-term investments are assuming that prices will rise at a pace well above that of the past 20 years, as they pencil in larger price increases for the supplies they buy and the prices they charge. Consumers are coming to take rapidly escalating food and energy prices for granted.