Economists weigh the possibilities in election winnowing

ECONOMISTS are starting to speculate about the implications for the economy of the presidential primaries and the election. One common assumption is that the Federal Reserve System will, like Br'er Rabbit, lay low.

``The Federal Reserve will be reluctant to pursue dramatic policy changes,'' notes David D. Hale, chief economist for Kemper Financial Services Inc.

Fed officials prize highly their independence from the politicians in the administration and Congress. Thus at election time, the Fed is particularly careful not to appear or be partisan.

If it were to loosen credit sharply and thereby drive down interest rates and stimulate economic activity, the Democrats might assume that the many governors appointed by President Reagan were showing favoritism for the Republicans. Or, vice versa, should the Fed tighten money sufficiently to cause a slump before the November election, the action would certainly make some Republican enemies.

Fed sensitivity was shown last week when its chairman, Alan Greenspan, criticized a top Treasury official, Michael Darby, for sending a letter to board members and district reserve bank presidents saying that weak money growth posed a risk to the economy.

At a Senate hearing, Mr. Greenspan said he hopes the Fed's concern about political pressure doesn't get so ``extraordinary we will feel the necessity to do precisely the opposite....''

Whether the Fed should be independent from politics is a question that has been raised to a higher level of discussion by a significant recent book, William Greider's ``Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country'' (Simon & Shuster, New York). Since presidents already tend to be credited or blamed for the impact of Fed decisions on the economy, they should also be given the responsibility for monetary policy, Mr. Greider argues.

There are other possible implications from the electoral process.

For example, New York consulting economist Sam Nakagama comments: ``On the Republican side, the failure of Bob Dole to take New Hampshire and knock out George Bush may be seen as a setback for fiscal sanity and any aggressive move toward balancing the budget. On the Democratic side, Dick Gephardt's victory in Iowa and his second-place finish in New Hampshire will strengthen the forces of protectionism in this country.''

He concludes: ``The outcomes...are blowing dark clouds over the economic horizon.''

Dole is the only leading Republican candidate who has not ruled out some revenue-raising measures for closing the budget deficit - steps that Mr. Nakagama believes are necessary.

If Representative Gephardt wins a sweeping victory on Super Tuesday March 8, Nakagama expects Congress to approve a variation of the Gephardt amendment to the omnibus trade bill. In an election year, President Reagan may be reluctant to veto such protectionist legislation.

So Nakagama expects a Gephardt victory to trigger an immediate sell-off in the bond market, pushing up interest rates - action similar to the 100 basis point (1 percent) jump in long-term interest rates that followed the imposition of sanctions against imported microchips in March 1987.

Should Gephardt win the Democratic nomination, Nakagama suspects the congressman's ``nationalistic appeal'' in the trade area may be difficult to counter by the Republicans.

Kemper's Mr. Hale notes that this election campaign will be the first since the end of the 19th century with the US as a capital importing nation. ``Since American politicians are generally insensitive to how their comments might be perceived by foreign investors, the odds are high that the election campaign will produce news events unsettling for the dollar initially and domestic bond prices later,'' he says.

A majority of the financial community usually prefers Republican presidents to Democratic ones. The prospect of a Democratic victory could make participants in that market highly nervous.

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