Regan hints at plan to tighten reins on Federal Reserve
Washington — Clearly irritated and worried by recent Federal Reserve Board monetary policy , the Reagan administration is considering a plan to bring the independent Fed under the control of elected officials, Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan says.
The Fed's role in the recent slowdown in United States economic growth appears to concern Mr. Regan. Normally relentlessly upbeat, he sounded gloomy notes on Christmas sales, economic growth, and budget and trade deficits during a breakfast meeting with reporters on Wednesday.
The administration is ''quite a ways'' from a decision to ask Congress to curb the Fed's independence, Regan cautioned. The review is still being conducted by lower-level officials and has not reached Regan's desk.
But, he added, ''We are the only really large industrial nation in the world that has a totally independent central bank.'' Talk of curbing the Fed's freedom represents an escalation in the Treasury's recent criticism of the Fed.
Recent monetary policy has been ''remarkably tight,'' Regan argued. Through transactions in the government securities market, the Fed helps increase or decrease the money supply, thereby influencing interest rates and the pace of economic growth.
Until recently, the most narrowly defined money supply, M-1, has been near the bottom of the Fed's target range. Spurts of growth in M-1 reported in the last two weeks have moved it to about the middle of the target range. But Regan expressed, in very strong terms, his displeasure with forecasts that the money supply figures for the week of Dec. 3 will show a big drop when they are released Thursday. That is no way, he said, to start the first week of December.
''I think the markets will be upset'' by talk of proposals to curb the Fed's independence, says Bernard Markstein III, senior economist at Chase Econometrics. ''There is a real fear the Fed would become too political if it were brought under greater control by Congress or the administration. That would revive fears of inflation.''
The Treasury secretary was optimistic about the prospects of selling Congress his tax-reform package. He noted that negotiations with authors of the two major congressional tax-reform plans either had already started or were scheduled to begin soon.
Regan dismissed as incomplete or based on flawed assumptions recent studies by economic consultants indicating his tax plan would hinder growth and corporate investment.
He says he has had discussions with Rep. Jack Kemp (R) of New York and Sen. Robert W. Kasten (R) of Wisconsin, authors of a key Republican tax-reform plan. And Regan said he plans to meet in the near future with Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey, co-author of a key Democratic tax-reform bill.
The goal is ''to see if there is a common denominator among all of these plans and is there any way to take the best of each and put it together to make a superior package,'' Regan said.
Regan indicated he is examining a proposal to keep the accelerated depreciation plan the Treasury package now would abolish.
Also being examined, he said, is a proposal to allow companies to deduct the full cost of certain business equipment when it is purchased, rather than depreciating it over time.
Regarding the economy's performance, Regan said a recession is ''possible but not probable.''
In terms of retail sales, ''this is not a great Christmas,'' Regan said. He laid much of the blame for this on high interest rates. He criticized banks for not lowering the rates consumers pay.
Because the cost of money to banks is coming down, Regan said, ''Consumer rates ought to come down in general at the same pace.'' Weak Christmas sales are expected to contribute to economic growth that falls short of the administration's forecast of a steady 4 percent rate (after inflation) in the final quarter of 1984 and throughout '85.
Fourth-quarter growth will be ''up slightly'' from the third, when inflation-adjusted gross national product rose at a 1.9 percent rate, he said. The first three months of 1985 ''won't be very strong,'' Regan said, although they will be better than the final months of 1984, ''particularly if (interest) rates come down.''
Lower-than-expected growth will add to the deficit by reducing revenues, he noted.
Without action to curb the deficit, including a reduction in the rate of increase in defense spending, ''we could be in danger of losing our economy,'' he warned.
''I think a slowdown in their rate of growth would not do irreparable harm in our ability to defend ourselves,'' he said of the Pentagon budget.
He added that without defense trims, the administration's budget-cutting package ''doesn't have a prayer.''
If nothing is done to close the budget gap, he said, ''I'm very much afraid these deficits will get in the way of further business expansion.''