WASHINGTON -- The Federal Reserve appears to be sticking to its hard-line stance against inflation despite signs the economy's pace slackened recently while price pressures eased, analysts said yesterday.
Fed officials have been tight-lipped since last week's meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee, perhaps because Chairman Alan Greenspan is scheduled to deliver his semiannual testimony on monetary policy to a House banking subcommittee on July 20.
But analysts said Greenspan may be holding together a consensus among FOMC members, including anti-inflation hawks such as Board Governors Wayne Angell and Lawrence Lindsey, by keeping the tilt toward higher rates intact.
FOMC members voted 10 to 2 to adopt a policy favoring higher short-term rates at their May 18 meeting, according to minutes of the meeting released on Friday.
"I would be shocked if they changed their bias," said David Jones, chief economist for Aubrey G. Lanston & Co.
Jones said he believes the minutes of the May meeting clearly revealed that when Fed officials had to choose between combating inflationary pressures or economic softness, they opted to curb inflation.
Statistics released after the May meeting show inflationary pressures receded, and analysts are expecting more good numbers for the bond market this week. Accordingly, some economists believe the Fed has softened its stance and reverted to a neutral policy directive.
But Jones said he believes Greenspan has sent a clear signal to the bond market and to Congress that the Fed remains focused on inflation and will raise the federal funds rate, now at 3%, to 31/4% as soon as the government issues a monthly price report showing a gain of 0.4% or more.
Lindsey and other hawks on the FOMC have argued that a firm show of resolve now will reduce pressures to lift rates in the future.
"The potential for a sustained increase in the rate of inflation could not be dimsissed," the May minutes say. "Waiting too long to counter any emerging uptrend in inflation or further worsening in inflationary expectations would exacerbate inflationary pressures and require more substantial and more disruptive policy moves later."
James Annable, chief economist First National Bank of Chicago, said Fed officials are deeply disturbed by the prospect that inflation has stopped improving after rising only 2.9% last year. "The next move in inflation is to start drifting up, and that is very worrisome to the Fed." he said.
"I think it's underappreciated how the accepted conventional wisdom has changed at the Fed, and that is that the best thing that they can do for the economy is get inflation down to a very low level -- probably he consensus would be close to 2% at the FOMC," Annable said.
The minutes of the May FOMC meeting suggested that there was considerable debate among members on whether the surge in price pressures early in the year was temporary. As a result, Greenspan proposed to consult with committee members before raising rates. Normally, the policy directive gives the chairman leeway to raise or lower rates by up to 50 basis points between committee meetings.
Tilting toward higher rates "was a tough decision," and is not easily erased, said Stuart Hoffman, chief economist for PNC Bank Corp. in Pittsburgh. Moreover, he went on, Fed officials were pleased that the bond market reacted so positively to the move. "My sense is that they're feeling calmer now that they got some better numbers on inflation, but they still want to wait and see."
Analysts also argued that Fed officials do not have the luxury of appearing to waffle on policy. Reversing course now and going back to a neutral policy directive "would have an adverse effect on the long end of the market," said Ray Stone, managing director of Stone & McCarthy Research, Inc.
There is also an argument to be made that economic growth with pick up in the second half of the year, and that Fed officials want to be ready to step in when that happens, said W. Douglas Lee, chief economist for County NatWest, USA.
Lee expects third-quarter growth will get a boost from increased auto production, and he expects recent declines in interest rates will boost home refinancings, putting more money in consumer pockets. He also believes the weak unemployment figures for June will be revised upward when the July report is issued on Aug. 6.