By John S. McClenahen The U.S. Labor Department's Producer Price Index (PPI) for Finished Goods rose 0.5% in March, a bit more than the 0.4% that analysts were expecting. The so-called core PPI, which excludes price changes for food and fuel, rose 0.2%, also a bit above what analysts anticipated. "The trend in core finished goods is trending erratically higher," observes UBS Investment Research, New York. "And continued gains in core-intermediate and crude-goods prices point to further acceleration going forward," it adds. Merrill Lynch & Co.'s read of the numbers is uniquely different. "There was . . . little evidence of [price] pass-through as the core rate of inflation slowed dramatically through the stages of production," contends David A. Rosenberg, chief North American economist at the New York-based securities firm. "In March, core crude prices were up 2.7%, core intermediate prices rose 0.6%, while core finished-goods prices were up only 0.2%," he notes. On April 22, the Labor Department also released the latest figures on initial claims for unemployment insurance. They show 353,000 initial jobless claims for the week ending April 17, a decrease of 9,000 from the previous week's revised figure of 362,000. The department's four-week moving average for initial claims rose by 2,250 last week to 347,000. Many economists consider the moving average a better indicator of underlying labor market conditions since it smoothes out week-to-week changes. "On balance," says UBS, "claims continue to suggest at least 'gradual' further improvement in the job market, as [Federal Reserve Chairman Alan] Greenspan described it on [April 21]."