Time for the Fed to tighten money, an economist says

Leif Olsen, Citibank's chief economist, wants the Federal Reserve System to exercise monetary restraint now - ''very promptly.'' With unemployment moving toward 11 percent and industry using only some 67 percent of its capacity, that may sound hard-nosed. In fact, some might regard such an idea as craziness.

Mr. Olsen admits that restraint may seem premature. But most people are not aware of the lag between monetary action and its impact on the economy. Right now the Citibank economist is confident that the recovery has begun. That recovery may seem weak and ambiguous at this point. ''But it will become less ambiguous over this next quarter.''

Mr. Olsen suspects that this quarter and next - contrary to the view of the Reagan administration - will show a ''robust'' recovery. He is concerned that the Fed's recent easy-money policy will not only reignite inflation, but destroy the long-term bond market.

To get the recovery under way, the Fed has pumped out money (M-1) at an annual rate of some 15 percent in recent months. Even if technical factors exaggerate this growth by 30 percent, Olsen notes, it means the growth rate has been about 10 percent. That is enough, if the velocity of money goes back to normal, to produce growth in the nation's nominal gross national product (its output of goods and services in current dollars) of some 13 percent. Over the last year, velocity, which is the turnover of money per year, has been less than usual.

Even if velocity remains low, Mr. Olsen says, that growth rate for money would in time produce inflation of at least 10 percent.

There are indications that some officials in Washington are also anxious about the Federal Reserve's monetary ease.

Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan told the Washington Post last week that monetary policy ''in the near term . . . should be accommodative to recovery.'' Then, he added, ''as the economy strengthens, money growth should be phased back slowly.''

The monetarist faction in the administration - those economists who have great faith in the effect of changes in the money supply on the economy - are hoping the Fed will soon commit itself to new monetary guidelines for 1983 that show some restraint. They believe the recovery could be more vigorous than seen by Martin Feldstein, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, and George Shultz, secretary of state.

Fed chairman Paul A. Volcker, in testimony before Congress, set tentative targets for M-1 growth of 2.5 to 5.5 percent this year, the same as for 1982. (M-1 consists of currency and checking deposits at financial institutions.) Because of technical problems related to expiry of the All-Savers certificates and creation of new savings accounts, the Fed abandoned M-1 temporarily last fall. But it must again report to Congress next month with its target plans.

The latest statistics show that M-1 grew 8.5 percent in 1982, well above its 5.5 percent target ceiling. M-2, a broader measure of money, which includes some savings-type accounts, rose 9.9 percent, above its ceiling of 9 percent. In the last quarter, however, it hit its target growth, a 9.5 percent annual rate.

Mr. Olsen has a reason besides inflation for wanting to see the Fed slow down money growth - but not jam on the monetary brakes. Putting tongue in cheek, he speaks of the danger of another ''Great Bond Sting.''

This is a reference to the drastic sell-offs in the bond markets as interest rates soared in 1980-81. Back in 1975, financial portfolio managers across the nation were discouraged by the shambles in the stock market. So they thought the bond market would produce a superior yield, and many put a higher proportion of their portfolios into bonds. Inflation had diminished by 1976 to less than 5 percent. They figured the higher inflation of the early 1970s was due to such ''shocks'' as the Vietnam war, poor harvests and oil price jumps.

President Carter and the Fed thought they could push a rapid recovery because of the high unemployment rates and excess capacity in the economy. President Carter promised to reduce inflation with moderate growth and no recession.

But inflation began to accelerate in 1978, and then there was a second round of oil price increases. The Carter administration attempted an ''economic rescue operation'' involving credit controls. As the economy plunged, the Fed shifted from the monetary brakes to the accelerator.

As a result of this switch, the bond and mortgage markets were severely damaged, Mr. Olsen notes. Bond prices plunged as interest rates rose.

''Finance and policy committees of insurance companies and banks (believe) that long-term, fixed-rate lending was no longer economically legitimate and that new strategies were required to reduce interest-rate risks by matching assets with liabilities and by generally shortening the maturities of both,'' Olsen told the Economic Club of Pittsburgh last week.

If the Fed continues its current ease, the Citibank economist reckons, it could renew the cynicism of the bond market - its belief that the Fed will abandon its anti-inflationary policy whenever the economy moves into recession. There could be another ''very ugly scene'' in the bond market if inflation expectations rise again and interest rates take off once more as a result.

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