US economy may be growing too fast
Washington — In the world of economics, sometimes the news is so good it is seen as bad. That is what appears to be happening now that the United States economy is growing faster than expected.
The impression of strength comes from upbeat figures the government has recently released on housing starts, industrial production, personal income, factory usage rates, and the gross national product.
Some forecasters are starting to worry that this surging economy could run into various roadblocks, including a dwindling amount of excess capacity in the nation's factories and pressure on credit markets as the government sells securities to cover the federal deficit.
The result, economists say, could be rising inflation and interest rates, which could choke off the recovery.
The near-term outlook is for ''a relatively strong recovery resulting in inflation and interest rate pressures,'' Goldman Sachs & Co. economic research director Gary Wenglowski recently wrote clients.
The economy could grow 5 to 6 percent in the first three months of 1984, after adjustment for inflation, he says. But growth will slow to a 3.3 percent rate by the end of 1984, his firm predicts. That compares with growth rate of 4. 9 percent in the final quarter of 1983, according to newly revised government figures.
During 1984 Goldman Sachs sees consumer prices rises picking up speed and growing at a 6.5 percent rate by year's end. By contrast in 1983 consumer prices rose only 3.2 percent.
''The outlook is very favorable but there is growing concern about the longevity of the expansion,'' says Nicholas Filippello, president of the National Association of Business Economists (NABE).
In a new survey, association members predict the economy will grow at an inflation-adjusted 4.2 percent rate from the fourth quarter of 1983 to the final quarter of 1984. That pace is only slightly slower than the Reagan administration's 4.5 growth forecast but well below the 6.2 percent growth the economy posted from the final quarter of 1982 to the final quarter of 1983.
Other business economists see even stronger growth. The US Chamber of Commerce is predicting 5.2 percent growth over the same time span. ''We wouldn't be surprised if it came in a little higher than we estimate,'' says Richard Rahn , the chamber's chief economist.
To some degree the strong figures for January reflect a rebound from the dampening effect bad weather had on activity in December.
''December wasn't as weak as the numbers indicate and neither is January as strong,'' says James Pihera, assistant director of the Georgia State University Forecasting Project.
For the moment, the Reagan administration is not revising upward its economic forecast.
''One robin doesn't mean the spring is here,'' cautions Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan. ''We'll have to wait and see.''
Nevertheless, consumer spending remains strong and business capital investment is beginning to take hold. And the NABE survey reports that 88 percent of its members in the manufacturing sector say demand is still rising.
But with recent government data showing factories operated at 79.9 percent of capacity in January, ''further supply increases will be less fluid and more costly to attain,'' Mr. Wenglowski says.
Widespread inflationary bottlenecks are still not at hand, says Martin S. Feldstein, chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers.
But he adds, ''I am concerned that long before certain industries get up there . . . others will be very close to full capacity and that could start giving us inflationary pressures . . . long before others get up to full employment.''
The economy's strong performance for the moment may tend to dampen a key issue for Democratic presidential candidates as they take their intramural battle to New Hampshire.
In a newly released survey, the NABE's 4,000 members see the economy ''performing favorably through election day this year,'' Mr. Filippello says.
''The underlying strength of the economy is still there. It isn't fading off as much as some people thought,'' Mr. Pihera says.
But Pihera and other forecasters expect the pace of economic growth will taper off as 1984 progresses. He expects the economy to grow at a 5.2 percent pace in the first three months but at a 3.9 percent rate in the final three months.
''My own forecast would be a reduction in the rate of growth as the year goes on,'' Filippello says.
At least in 1984, business economists do not expect the federal budget deficit to have a major impact on the economy. NABE members predict that the prime rate will rise only 0.5 percent from its current 11-percent level between now and the end of 1984.
That suggests ''the effects of the deficit will not be catastrophic in 1984, '' Filippello says.
Some 69 percent of the NABE's members say that ''by the end of 1985 we will see the current expansion peak out and the beginning of a downturn. That doesn't mean 1985 will be a recession year,'' Filippello says.
But ''it looks like a 1986 recesson,'' Pihera says. One major cause will be rising interest rates, which first could choke off the recovery in interest-sensitive sectors of the economy like housing and autos, and then spread to other areas.