WASHINGTON - An apparent shift in policy by the Federal Reserve that ends a six-month period of neutrality on short-term interest rates does not signal that rates will begin moving up anytime soon, analysts said yesterday.
Analysts agreed that Fed officials have fired a warning shot at the bond market that they are willing to raise rates if the economy shows more vitality and if inflation fears do not subside.
But many analysts also say they expect economic growth will remain moderate for some time, tempering pressures on Fed policymakers to assert their inflation-fighting credentials.
A report published yesterday in The Wall Street Journal said that members of the Federal Open Market Committee voted last week to adopt a policy directive leaning toward higher rates. Under Fed operating procedures, that would give Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan authority to raise the federal funds rate to as high as 3 1/2% from the current 3%.
Fed officials declined to confirm the report. "We don't talk about FOMC meetings," said Fed spokesman Bob Moore.
Three other senior Fed officials with knowledge of the FOMC meeting also declined to comment.
The bond market, which has been speculating for several weeks about a turn in Fed policy, took the report as gospel. It came after reports from the Labor Department showing inflation rising at an annual rate of over 4% so far this year.
"This is just a precaution that a central bank can take so that it doesn't get caught by surprise," said Lyle Gramley, a consulting economist for the Mortgage Bankers Association. But, he added, "There's just no way in the world that the Fed is going to tighten monetary policy given the economic numbers we're getting now."
Gramley said he expects the Commerce Department's revised estimate for first-quarter gross domestic product due out Friday to be under 1%, which would be a considerably weaker showing than the 1.8% estimate of last month. He predicted that any move by the Fed to raise rates will not come for at least six months, after growth picks up to a range of 3 1/2% to 4%.
Economists continue to cite high unemployment, productivity gains by business, slow growth in the industrial sector, and uncertainty over what Congress will do with President Clinton's economic stimulus program as reasons to believe Greenspan and his colleagues are in no hurry to raise rates.
"The Fed has basically put the market on warning that the next move will be toward a tightening at some point," said Mort Kelly, a manager with Brown Brothers Harriman & Co.
Treasury rates responded by rising yesterday, especially rates for bills and notes ranging from two to five years. "It's always dangerous to trade against the Fed, especially at the short end of the curve," said Kelly. But he said the slightly higher rates "may be enough to cool things off."
Minutes of the March 23 meeting of the FOMC released on Friday show that two Fed officials, board governors Wayne Angell and Lawrence Lindsey, favored an immediate move to tighten policy.
Angell is a frequent maverick in Fed policy councils and is widely known for his interest in prices of gold and other commodities as inflation indicators.
Lindsey has often talked of his interest in the slow growth in the money supply, which would argue against a Fed tightening. But he has also argued that with a 3% federal funds rate and a 3% inflation rate, the Fed has been pursuing an accommodative monetary policy.
"Most people are quite convinced that the economy's growth track is mediocre at best, and in that context it's hard for them to think the Fed is really going to act on this bias," said Dana Johnson, chief analyst for the capital markets group of First National Bank of Chicago. "Going forward if the economy news happens to tone up some, there could be a lot of reaction to that, but you're missing that crucial element right now."
Johnson said the bond market views the the apparent shift in policy by Fed officials "as almost a symbolic move," and as a sign that "they are not all happy about what they're seeing in inflation and that come what may they'll react if they must."
At the White House, there was no official comment from spokesman George Stephanopoulos. However, he did say that the drop in interest rates since Clinton took office "is pumping real money into the economy," and that "we are hoping the economy will stay in good shape so that interest rates can stay down."