For steadiness at the Fed

The mounting criticisms of the Federal Reserve Board now emanating from the White House and Congress are not unexpected, given the fact that the US economy is in recession and that the Reagan administration is facing a major election test later this year. Starkly put, the political and economic stakes in the Fed's current policies are enormous. Too restrictive a monetary policy could choke off recovery this spring or summer and exacerbate the slump. Too loose a monetary policy could refuel inflation and drive interest rates up. Thus, it is crucial that the growing debate over the Fed not develop into an altercation that could lead to serious consequences for everyone. It is also vital that the Fed avoid wide swings and stick with a steady and consistent policy in reducing the rate of growth in the nation's money supply.

The current scrap stems from both political and technical considerations. Some administration officials, mainly at the Treasury, argue that the Fed has been too erratic and that this in turn has contributed to (if not caused) the current recession. The Fed, in the words of Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, has followed an ''uneven pattern'' of money supply growth that has triggered deep unease on Wall Street. The Fed concedes the sharp upsurge in the money supply since last November but avers that it cannot explain exactly why this has occurred. To cite just one measurement, between the fourth quarter of 1980 and the fourth quarter of 1981 the growth in M1 -- the nation's cash and checking-account deposits -- was a modest 2.2 percent. That is at the low end of the Fed's target range of money growth for that period, which was 3.5 percent to 6 percent. That 2.2 percent growth in M1 in 1981 compares to 6.7 percent in 1980 and 7.5 percent in 1979.

But looking at the period between November of last year and now, M1 has roller-coasted upward at an annual rate of 13.7 percent. Not surprisingly, both short- and long-term interest rates have also begun to turn up since then, reflecting investor concerns about a renewal of inflation.

Treasury Secretary Regan is urging that the Fed hold to a steadier course and that the money growth for 1982 be on the high side of the independent agency's target level. Given the need for enough money to spur recovery, Mr. Regan's call to move upwards within the target range seems reasonable. But would it not be better to go the middle range, rather than the very top, to avoid a new round of inflation? Inflation last year dropped to under 10 percent for the first time since 1978.

The Fed will have to take steps to bring the current spurt in money growth under control. That will require a delicate balancing act. The administration will have its own voice on the Fed starting next month in the person of Preston Martin, who comes out of President Reagan's California entourage. Mr. Martin's very presence on the Fed board -- he will be vice chairman - should help ensure that administration concerns are understood.

The Fed might be well-served by considering changes in its technical accounting methods -- such as shifting from what is called ''lag reserve accounting'' to ''contemporaneous reserve accounting.'' The matter is complicated, but suffice it to say that such a changeover would sharply accelerate the Fed's control over the money supply.

Wall Street, for its part, might also do better to take a longer-term view of the economy rather than reacting to each weekly blip on the money charts. The point is that over the past several years the Fed has gained control over the basic money supply to a remarkable extent. The task now is to fine-tune that policy of restraint so as to ensure that the nation's course is one of ''steady as you go'' rather than precipitous leaps into new inflation -- or plunges into deeper recession

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