Signs continue to emerge that the nation's economy is feeling a late- autumn chill - and that puts further pressure on the Federal Reserve Board to cut interest rates next week.
A generally anemic November employment report on Friday triggered a fresh rise in bond prices, pushing market interest rates lower amid speculation that a Fed rate cut is imminent.
Prices of many bank stocks also rose, as they have through the recent bond market rally. However, some Wall Street analysts caution that lower rates are a mixed blessing for banks, since they cut asset yields and signal a slower economy. (See story on back page.)
"I would describe the economy as vulnerable, with the risks on the downside," said Robert G. Dederick, economic consultant to Chicago's Northern Trust Co. "A dose of Fed easing seems to be appropriate."
He rated chances of Fed easing as 50% at the central bank's monetary policy session Dec. 19 and 90% by the end of January, with a 25-basis-point cut likely if action comes before Christmas.
"If I were master of the universe, and of the Fed, I would wait until January to review holiday sales strength and whatever Congress does, but I can't quarrel with moving earlier," he said.
The economy seems to be experiencing its second inventory correction of the year, Mr. Dederick pointed out. The first, which began last March, prompted the Fed to slice short-term rates modestly in early July.
While overall employment rose, high inventories and weak consumer demand were likely factors in the loss of 32,000 manufacturing sector jobs in November, notably in automobile assembly. The apparel industry also lost jobs for the same reasons.
Also last week, reports arrived that new-home sales fell 2.7% in October. Moreover, sales in September were revised to down 1% from up 3.3%. For the first 10 months of this year, sales are down 1.5% from a year earlier.
Moreover, published reports Friday indicated that President Clinton may present the reappointment of Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan and Vice Chairman Alan S. Blinder as a package deal. The administration reportedly wants to try to ensure approval of Mr. Blinder, who has pushed for lower rates, by Republican senators, who like the chairman.
To be sure, the economic data were not weak across the board - construction spending was notably strong in October, for instance. But Mr. Dederick and other economists assess business conditions as lackluster.
"The jobs report sent the same signal that the bulk of data has been sending - that the economy has slowed," said Wayne M. Ayers, chief economist at the First National Bank of Boston.
"It solidifies the case that the Fed will move sooner rather than later," he said. "The Fed can surprise, of course, but the direction looks pretty clear."
If the central bank takes action next week, Mr. Ayers said he expected a 25-basis-point cut. "But if they do wait until January, it may be a full half-point," he declared.
Mr. Ayers doubts they will wait much longer, since 1996 is a presidential election year. The Fed prefers a lower profile in such years, he said, "and if they see a need to ease, their preference will be to do it sooner rather than later."
The economic outlook is "fragile," said Lacy H. Hunt, chief economist at HSBC Securities, New York. "We have lost nearly a quarter-million manufacturing jobs since March, and that is difficult to make up for," he said.
Inflation should not be a concern for the Fed, he said. "The market rumor that wage rates are going up was obviously not well founded," he commented.
Average weekly earnings in the private sector fell $1.50 last month, to $399.51 from $401.01. Economist Thomas Nordone of the Bureau of Labor Statistics said earnings, measured hourly, are growing at the same 3% annual rate of the last few months. Hourly earnings fell 1 cent last month.
Mr. Hunt thinks the economy next year will "scrape by" with minimal growth of 0.5%, with a 35% chance of a "hard landing."
A much different view is offered by Eugene J. Sherman, director of research at M.A. Schapiro & Co. Inc.
"It's a close call, but I think the Fed will maintain the status quo at its Dec. 19 meeting," he said Friday. Moreover, "there are enough elements of potential economic strength to raise doubts whether the Fed will ease at its late-January meeting."
He cited the Fed's own Beige Book economic survey, also released last week, as support for his position.
The Fed report, he said, showed that while economic growth was slowing, "there was strong demand for services and tight labor-market conditions."