Housing starts rebounded sharply in March after declining in the two previous months, the government reported yesterday-indicating the economy still is growing rapidly and has not slowed as much as some analysts hoped.
The new figures showed overall housing starts back at an annual rate of 1.793 million units, up 30 percent from a revised 1.384 million-unit pace in February but still slightly below December's 2.074 million-unit rate.
The robust statistics were expected to heighten the debate over whether the government should tighten its economic policies to help dampen the excess demand that is contributing to the inflation surge.
The Federal Open Market Committee, the policysetting arm of the Federal Reserve Board, met for three-and-a-half hours yesterday to consider whether to raise interest rates, but as usual did not announce any decision.
The full impact of any Fed action probably will not show up in the markets at least until Thursday. The panel was expected to be split over the issue, with Fed chairman G. William Miller opposed to any further tightening.
The developments came as the Council on Wage and Price Stability issued new regulations asking firms with annual sales of $250 million or more to seek advance approval before shifting to an alternative profit-margin standard.
Previously, the Council had asked only those firms with sales of $500 million or more to request such approval. The regulations stem from changes announced last month as part of a more to crack down on suspected abuses.
Meanwhile, in a separate move, the AFL-CIO asked a federal court to issue a prompt summmary judgement in a suit aimed at prohibiting the White House from denying federal contracts to firms that violate the standards.
A decision in favor of the AFL-CIO's petition could deal a severe blow to the wage-price guidelines program. Although the administration has never denied a contract to a firm, the threat remains its biggest enforcement club.
At the same time, Douglas Fraser, president of the United Auto Workers union, warned the administration to "stay the hell away from the auto industry's negotiations this summer lest it provoke a strike.
"it will greatly enhance the possibility of a settlement without a strike if we don't have outside interference," Fraser told delegates to a pre-bargain- ing convention in Detroit. The industry's talks begin in July.
The Fed's entry into the markets yesterday was muted and within previously set targets. The key federal funds rate, the interest charged by the Fed on loans to member banks, remained at just under 10 percent, the same as before.
President Carter's top economic policymakers had been trying to persuade the Fed to raise interest rates to help dampen the economy, but were silenced by the president after Miller complained the debate was too public.
Few analysts now expect the Federal Open Market Committee to boost interest rates significantly over the next several weeks. But the Fed could raise its discount rate as an anti-inflation gesture without boosting other rates as well.
The rebound in housing starts confirmed assessments by analysts that the bulk of the January and February declines were the result of bad weather and did not reflect a steep falloff in home construction.