Washington — If the US jobless rate, now 9.4 percent of the work force, inches up to 10 percent or more during the summer, what does this tell us about the economy?
First of all, experts agree, it does not mean that the United States is slumping into depression. Basic elements of the economy appear poised for recovery, though the upturn is not clearly in sight.
On July 1 an additional $45 billion worth of buying power will begin flowing to American consumers--$33 billion from the 10 percent income tax cut and $12 billion from a 7.4 percent boost in social security payments.
Individuals and families will benefit in different ways. But the impact on the economy as a whole of this huge increase in real disposable income, says a Data Resources/McGraw-Hill (DRI) study, will amount to $800 a year for a typical family of four.
Millions of Americans may be impelled to spend at least part of this windfall on consumer goods--if not cars and refrigerators, at least on household goods and clothing.
At the same time, the nation's merchants have run down their inventories of unsold goods to the point that they should soon be boosting their replacement orders to manufacturers.
These elements, taken together, should lay the groundwork for a business revival, either late in the April-June period or in the third quarter of the year.
Concrete measures of the economy, meanwhile--housing starts, new car sales, factory utilization rates, industrial production--are less optimistic, showing the economy still mired in recession.
High interest rates, reflecting money market concerns about the future--especially huge government deficits--add fragility to the prospects for durable recovery.
Unless interest rates drop substantially--the prime from 16.5 to 13 percent or so, mortgage rates from 17 percent to about 13--a recovery may be nipped in the bud.
Even an early recovery, coming as soon as this quarter of 1982, is unlikely to halt the upward creep of unemployment for some time to come.
Why? How is it possible for the economy to begin to recover, while the number of Americans losing their jobs continues to climb?
The answer lies in the attitude of the typical American employer, when recession strikes. He holds on to his trained work force as long as possible.
Then, having been forced finally to trim his staff, he is slow to rehire people when recovery begins, until he has utilized a smaller labor force to the maximum.
Unemployment figures, in other words, are a ''lagging indicator,'' trailing changes in the business cycle by as much as several months.
Many economists expect this year's jobless rate--the highest since 1941 --to top 10 percent, even if recovery starts soon.
Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan disputes this view, claiming that ''unemployment is peaking about now.'' He anticipates a ''9 or just under 9'' percent jobless rate by the end of 1982.
President Reagan and Congress, moving deeper into a congressional election year, will come under increasing pressure to do something to put people back to work.
The traditional answer has been for government to prime the economy's pump in times of high unemployment, by establishing public works and job-training programs, accompanied by a relaxed credit stance by the Federal Reserve Board.
The Fed, in such cases, has allowed the money supply to grow swiftly enough to ''accommodate'' the government's extra spending. Unemployment has been reduced, but at the cost of higher inflation.
This time, a different mood prevails in Washington, with stern practitioners of ''squeeze inflation out of the economy'' dominant both at the Fed and the White House.
The growth of the money supply is curbed by the Fed, contributing to high interest rates, and President Reagan--far from enlarging job-creating programs--has cut them sharply.
The President's 1983 budget would trim budget authority for jobs programs to
This reduced amount could be used only for training, not to create public service jobs.
Rule changes sponsored by the White House also make it harder for jobless Americans to qualify for more than the basic 26 weeks of unemployment compensation.
White House and Fed officials point to progress against inflation and to moderate wage settlements this year as indication that their policy is working.
However, says presidential counselor Edwin Meese III, some adjustment to Reaganomics might be necessary, if interest rates do not fall after Congress fashions a 1983 budget.
He did not specify what changes might be made.
Deputy White House press secretary Larry M. Speakes said later that the President anticipates no basic alteration of his economic policy.