The vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board said yesterday his agency was well aware that its new tight monetary policy "would hurt housing" but that the economy needed a shock effect to help curb inflation.
Federick Schultz told a housing industry summit conference called by home builders that he expects interest rates to begin dropping "even before there is less inflation." He said, however, that the Fed alone cannot curb inflation and will need help from both fiscal policy and tax actions to reduce it gradually.
House Majority Leader Jim Wright of Texas earlier called the Fed's attack on inflation by raising interest rates "a narrow, short-sighted, disproved theory" that "if unaltered, will drive this country into the ground." He said that a resultant high prime rate of lending, now over 15 percent, "is the worst possible medicine to halt inflation."
Wright said the higher interest rates on home mortgages have increased the monthly cost of a loan on a $50,000 house by $115 this year. He pinpointed money and energy costs as the heaviest causes of inflation.
The National Association of Home Builders assembled the conference to highlight what its chief economist, Michael Sumichrast, termed serious trouble for the industry. Sumichrast forecast that the level of new housing starts will decline to an annual level below $1 million early next year. (Starts totaled 2 million last year and will be near 1.7 million in 1979.) He said that construction employment will decline 24 percent by next October.
Sumichrast contended that the cure for inflation is not in "pushing up interest rates" and added that 10 million Americans have been priced out of the housing market since interest rates began zooming this fall. When asked to give an example of a better way to fight inflation, Sumichrast said there is "no magic" but that increased use of coal and atomic energy is needed and that proliferating regulatory agencies are making it increasingly costly for all small businesses to survive.
Rep. Henry Reuss (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Banking Committee, said the Fed's monetary tightening policy was "utterly sensible" but added that it was unnecessary to "raise borrowing rates out of sight." Reuss said he will continue trying to persuade banks to hold down their rates. He suggested an international summit meeting on economic policy and ended with a "hope we can mitigate the misery" of the home building industry.
Speaking as a leader and representative of the building trades, Robert Georgine demanded "action for the plight of workers and builders caught in high interest rates." The AFL-CIO executive said that the Volcker regime at the Fed "is worse than (Arthur) Burns' and someone there" must remember the recessions of 1965-66 and 1973-75, when housing starts declined sharply and thousands of construction jobs were lost.
Sen. Jake Garn, the Utah Republican who serves on the housing and urban affairs subcommittee, said he supported the Fed monetary action but "didn't like it," adding there is no alternative.
Vondal S. Gravlee, the Birmingham builder who called the session as president of NAHB, said 22 new unsold houses in his city were recently offered for rent for less than the cost of carrying them. A Detroit builder said that 11 surburban homes in the $150,000 range will be auctioned next week.
The housing summit conference resumes today with HUD Secretary Moon Landrieu, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) and Sen. Harrison Williams (D-N.J.) among the speakers.