US economy: poised for recovery
Washington — A batch of fresh figures issued by the US government needs careful sifting to determine where the American economy may be heading over the summer months.
Inflation and interest rates supply the dark side of the picture, while, on a brighter note, some evidence exists that the recession may be ending.
Putting it all together, analysts draw these general conclusions:
* Inflation is picking up a bit of steam, but will still be well below the level of last year.
* Interest rates show no sign of declining, because Congress and the White House have not convinced money managers that government deficits will stop growing.
* The recovery, which most experts expect to begin soon, may prove to be what Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan calls ''anemic.''
* Unemployment may remain around the 9 percent level for a number of months, until conditions are ripe for solid recovery.
To take inflation first, the consumer price index (CPI) jumped a full 1 percent in May - 12 percent at an annual rate - raising the old specter of double-digit inflation.
Three-fifths of the May increase, however, came from a rapid run-up of gasoline prices, a phenomenon that had been expected.
After many months of global oil glut, supply and demand for petroleum products are more nearly in balance, forecasting an end to price-cutting and some price increases at the pump.
Including the May CPI figure, analysts note, inflation at the consumer level rose only 3.5 percent at an annual rate during the first five months of 1982.
Economists expect the full year will show a 5 to 6 percent climb in consumer prices, well below last year's 8.9 percent and a solid improvement over the 12.4 percent of 1980 and the 13.3 mark of 1979.
Interest rates at their present level, meanwhile - a 16.5 percent prime and others revolving around that point - appear to rule out a robust recovery at this time.
Builders, who pay at least a point or two above prime for construction loans, cannot make a profit, says Mr. Regan, until the interest they pay falls to 14 percent or below.
With mortgages costing 16 to 17 percent, says the Manufacturers Hanover Financial Digest, ''approximately 85 percent of all households are now unable to afford the mortgage associated with the median-priced new home.''
Neither builders nor home buyers, in other words, are in a position to help the housing industry bolster the nation's economic recovery, until interest rates drop.
This puts a spotlight on the Federal Reserve Board, whose tight-money policy has achieved its primary objective of reducing inflation, but which also contributes to high interest rates.
With inflation speeding up somewhat - and with the growth of the money supply running a bit above target - the Fed is unlikely to relax its monetary reins.
The Treasury, furthermore, will be borrowing huge amounts of money during the summer to finance the government's enormous deficit, estimated at about $100 billion this fiscal (1982) year. Under these conditions interest rates are expected by many analysts to rise, not drop, in the near future.
Against this background the government flashes a signal that the economy may have grown at a 0.6 percent annual rate during the current April-June quarter.
If this preliminary estimate proves correct, the recession which began last July technically will have ended. The gross national product (GNP), or the nation's total output of goods and services, declined by 3.7 percent in the first quarter of 1982, following a sharper 4.5 percent fall in the last quarter of 1981.
The government's ''flash'' estimate, as it is called, of a slight GNP gain this quarter could be revised later, either up or down, when final figures are available.
However this may turn out, most economists expect that the economy during the April-June period was essentially flat, indicating that the recession has bottomed out and that an upturn may be on the way.
Spurring this hope are increases last month in both consumer spending and personal income. Beginning July 1 consumers' potential buying power will get another boost, when a 10 percent income tax cut and a 7.4 percent increase in social security benefits take hold.
Experts in and out of government warn that the expected recovery, like a seed dropped on stony soil, is unlikely to take root until interest rates fall.