WASHINGTON -- The big question for the bond market is whether Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan is getting ready to reload his shotgun to take another blast at the invisible enemy -- inflation.
Greenspan, who is scheduled to testify Wednesday before the Senate Banking Committee, is a veteran at dodging questions from members of Congress who want to know where interest rates are headed.
But this time he faces a particularly tough time explaining the Fed's goals. Despite months of talk by high-paid Wall Street analysts about rising commodity prices, a weak dollar, and tightening labor markets, inflation -- that arch villain of bonds -- has not, gone any higher.
Last week the Labor Department reported that wholesale prices in June were unchanged compared with a year earlier and that consumer prices were up only 2.5%. It seems as if a crackling economy -- now growing throughout the country and creating 3.8 million jobs since President Clinton took office -- just can't generate a little upswing in price pressures to create a handy rationale for higher interest rates.
The Federal Reserve is undoubtedly the only federal agency in town that is fighting to prevent a problem that remains unknown to all except the economists who have their computers programmed for trouble.
No matter how good the statistics, Fed policymakers remain concerned that the economy is about done chewing up spare capacity and that if it keeps growing rapidly, inflation will surely follow. The bond market agrees and keeps screaming for higher interest rates.
None other than-Wayne Angell, who quit the Fed earlier this year to cam his fortune as chief economist for Bear, Stearns & Co., has called on his former colleagues to jack up short-term rates to 5.25% from 4.25%. There are other analysts who say the Fed should bump up rates by half a percentage point to 4.75%.
Greenspan is no doubt aware of the calls from Wall Street for more monetary restraint, which carries the added promise of propping up the dollar on foreign exchanges.
But there is evidence that the economy is cooling as consumers retrench and as reaction sets in to four Fed rate increases earlier this year. Unfortunately, such evidence is scattered, and unconvinced bond market vigilantes want to see the Fed cuffing the rosy-checked economy once again.
Some analysts believe Greenspan will use the Banking Committee hearing to lay out a fresh rationale for raising rates, in effect putting the public on notice. He knows that he cannot use the old rhetoric about raising rates to get monetary policy in "neutral," because any new round of rate increases would be seen clearly for what it is -- an attempt to slow growth.
But members of Congress are not likely to take kindly to the notion of another blast by Greenspan at the invisible enemy. And Greenspan knows from experience that if Fed officials go too far in raising rates, they could send the economy veering toward the edge of the road.
Many analysts believe that Fed officials will wait until their regular Aug. 16 policy meeting before raising rates again. If they do, they may be able to administer some late-summer shock therapy to the bond market at an opportune time. Congress will be on recess, administration officials will be out of town on vacation, and Wall Street traders will be at their beach houses on Long Island.
There won't be a lot of people around to howl.