Outlook for US economy - shades of gray

What kind of pattern emerges from the kaleidoscopic signals, good and bad, that the US economy is sending out?

Both the good and bad news revolves around the central fact of the economy at this time - a recession of uncertain depth and duration, which threatens to boost unemployment to post-World War II highs.

Republicans, including White House officials, stress the favorable signs - lower inflation and interest rates. Democrats, gearing up for new budget battles in Congress, emphasize the spreading misery of joblessness.

In fact, the outlook for the future is a combination of good and bad - neither black nor white, but gray.

On the favorable side, inflation at long last is coming down, though question marks remain for the future.

Wholesale prices rose only 7 percent in 1981, down from 11.8 percent the year before. Consumer prices climbed 9.2 percent during the first 11 months of 1981 - still high, but well below the 12.4 percent for all of 1980.

Wage settlements in 1982, according to a study by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Conference Board, may rise only 8 percent, compared with roughly 11 percent in 1981.

This estimate applies to the first year of multiyear agreements (three years is the norm) and includes fringe benefits, notably cost-of-living adjustments.

Because wages and salaries make up two-thirds of the US gross national product, their influence on inflation is enormous. Lower labor costs - i.e., moderate wage settlements - help to restrain the upward drift of prices.

A key example is the willingness of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) to take some pay cuts to save jobs. UAW wages and benefits are 60 percent higher than the average manufacturing wage in the United States.

Hundreds of thousands of automobile workers are idle, while changes in the law last year make it harder for those laid off to qualify for more than the basic 26 weeks of unemployment compensation.

UAW leaders know that Ford and General Motors increasingly will go to foreign countries - where labor costs are lower - to manufacture parts, unless domestic wages and benefits are scaled back.

Hard times similarly may impel the Teamsters, rubber workers, and others whose contracts come up for renewal to moderate their demands. This in turn should help to pull the nation's basic, or underlying, inflation rate below the 9 percent range where it has been stuck for some time.

Unemployment, meanwhile, may continue upward for some months, piercing the 9 percent postwar high reached in May of 1975.

Sometime in late spring or during the summer, most analysts believe, the economic slide will bottom out and the economy will begin to climb, spurred as 1982 rolls on by the 10 percent income tax cut due July 1.

The economy, in fact, may sport a deceptively rosy glow as all congressmen and one-third of all Senators vie at the polls for votes in November.

Both inflation and interest rates could be lower than they are today and laid-off workers may be going back to jobs - a scenario for which Republicans devoutly hope.

For those who look beyond partisanship, the task is to forge a policy that would keep the recovery going, avoiding a collision between the Federal Reserve Board's tight money policy and a demand for capital by an expanding economy.

''The Fed will indeed stick to its guns in the anti-inflation battle,'' said a member of the Federal Reserve Board in an interview, ''even if huge government borrowing and demand stimulated by recovery collide, as they may do in late 1982 and 1983.''

Neither Congress nor the White House will be able to offer meaningful help against inflation, in this official's view - ''unless they agree to chop $100 billion out of a budget deficit that will be above $150 billion in fiscal 1984 .''

''They can only do this,'' the official went on, ''by hitting on all fronts - tax increases, cuts in defense spending, cuts in entitlement programs and other nondefense areas. Certainly the savings cannot be achieved through nondefense cuts alone,'' as President Reagan currently proposes.

It would be hard to find a top-level official in the White House who does not agree that all these things must be done, including major tax increases and some cuts in defense.

But there is, to date, one holdout - the President himself.

US economy The good news 1980 1981 consumer price rise 12.40% 9.20% Prime interest rate 21.50% 15.75% The bad news 1980 1981 Unemployment 7.1% 8.9% US deficit* 57.9 B 100+B (e) For fiscal years 1981, 1982 (e)=estimate

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