Boston — Like a robust, exercise-hungry dog, the nation's money supply -- the fuel that feeds the economy -- has been moving faster than the Federal Reserve System wants, tugging on its leash.
''It has got away from us a little beyond what we wanted for a few months,'' admitted William F. Ford, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, in a telephone interview. ''But we will get it back. . . . We will bring the growth path back to the range we said. We will do that in the next few weeks or months.''
That's just what the nation's financial and stock markets fear. It used to be that the Fed suffered from its version of a ''credibility gap.'' Fed officials would make promises of a stern monetary policy. The markets did not believe them, and acted accordingly.
But disbelief is no longer the Fed's problem. Nowadays, when the Fed speaks, E. F. Hutton and other brokerage houses on Wall Street listen.
Thus when Mr. Ford (and earlier last week Fed chairman Paul A. Volcker) pledge to restrain the money supply when its growth exceeds the target, the markets anticipate the action. Interest rates rise. On Tuesday, for instance, a jump in the commercial bank prime rate -- the interest charged to their most creditworthy customers -- was expected because banks anticipated a credit tightening move by the Fed. Because of the fear of higher interest rates, the stock market plunges, as it did early Tuesday.
What prompted Tuesday's financial unease was another jump in the basic money supply in statistics for the Feb. 3 week, released Friday. So-called M-1 grew at a 20.7 percent annual rate last month, far above the Fed's announced goal of a 2 .5 to 5.5 percent increase in this measure. M-1 consists of the total of cash in public hands plus private checking deposits -- funds readily available for spending.
Ford, who sits in on meetings of the Fed's policymaking Federal Open Market Committee and will vote at its next session, notes the Fed's long-term policy of reducing growth in the money supply has been successful. It has produced a recession. But it has also slowed inflation.
This lower inflation rate, Ford predicts, will eventually result in declining interest rates.
Administration critics of the Fed charge that one reason for the current extraordinary phenomenon of high interest rates in a recession is the erratic movements in the money supply - such as the recent surge in growth.
Ford concedes that the Fed has problems with its control of the money supply. ''We recognize we do not have perfect monetary tools (now). They are pretty crude. . . .''
What is needed, critics say, is two technical changes. The Fed should require commercial banks to switch from ''lagged reserve accounting'' to ''contemporaneous reserve accounting'' in calculating their reserves. The Fed should be more prompt in altering its ''discount rate'' to reflect interest rate changes in the money markets. The discount rate is what the Fed charges commercial banks when they borrow from the Fed to meet their reserve requirements.
Ford notes that Fed studies indicate there would be ''some benefits'' in the way of better control of the money supply from making these technical changes. But, he notes, there would also be costs.
''The overwhelming majority of people in the (banking) industry are against it,'' he adds. ''They tell us to forget it.''
At present, banks maintain reserves according to the level of their deposits two weeks earlier. Banks would have to change their computer programs and get their accounts in order faster, at some expense, to set aside reserves according to deposits at the end of the latest week. The banks also maintain that interest rates would bounce around even more if banks had to find money quickly by borrowing so-called ''federal funds'' from each other or go to the Fed's ''discount window'' to meet reserve requirements.
Whatever, the Fed has circulated a proposal calling for comment on contemporaneous reserve accounting. Mr. Ford will be looking hard at the idea. ''We would like to see the trend in money supply growth both steady and downward ,'' he says. ''It is hard to do it with the tools we have.''