Economists expect short-term interest rates to edge up a bit by a year from now, according to the latest American Banker Yield and Rate Survey.
The rate scenario fits the picture of a moderately growing economy with low inflation expected in 1997.
That is also the outlook apparent from Friday's labor market survey. The government reported that nonfarm payrolls grew by a moderate 210,000 in October, while the unemployment rate was unchanged at 5.2%.
"The October employment report provided more favorable news for financial markets, reinforcing our message of modest growth and low inflation," said Bruce Steinberg, manager of macroeconomic research at Merrill Lynch & Co.
Donald Straszheim, Merrill's chief economist, said he thinks the federal funds rate could rise to 5.5% by the fourth quarter of 1997, versus 5.25% now, if the Federal Reserve decides to take out a small insurance policy against inflation.
If so, the bank prime lending rate would probably notch up to 8.5%, from 8.25% now. A 25-basis-point rate increase would likely have little impact on the economy.
Other economists who see a similar move in rates are John O. Wilson of Bank of America, San Francisco, and Donald Ratajczak of Georgia State University.
Others see rates at a virtual standstill, while a few expect them to slip downward next year if the economy weakens. As always, the outlook for the consumer is the key element and is much debated among economists.
Mr. Steinberg noted that the latest employment report showed the aggregate hours index fell 0.9% in October, after rising a similar amount in September. That was in contrast to rapid growth during the previous six months.
The Merrill economist said he had expected this development and added that it may affect consumer spending, which recently has been flat.
"With hours slowing even more than employment gains are slowing," he said, "income growth should also slow, helping to keep consumer spending subdued."