Chase Manhattan Bank raised its prime lending rate yesterday from 15 1/4 percent to 15 1/2 percent, indicating the current surge in interest rates is not yet over.
None of the other top banks, all of which have a 15 1/4 percent prime, immediately followed Chase's lead, but market analysts expect them to do so soon.
Meanwhile, there are some signs short-term interest rates are nearing their peaks for this business cycle. The prime rate, for instance, is now going up one-quarter of a point at a time instead of a full point, and financial markets are noticeable calmer than they were most of last month, analysts say.
Moreover, the Federal Reserve seems to be meeting some of the objectives it had in mind last month when it tightened credit availability and changed its methods of intervening in financial markets: slowing the rate of growth of the money supply and reducing demand for commercial and industrial loans.
After the prime rate increase was announced, the chairman of the House Banking Committee, Rep. Henry Reuss (D-Wisc.), denounced Chase, saying the Federal Reserve's action "doesn't give the large banks any license to raise interest rates endlessly."
The increase, Reuss declared, "is bad news for workers who will lose jobs and businesses who will go broke because of unnecessarily high interest rates." And the chairman challenged Chase to "inform the nation" whether it has been borrowing money directly from the Fed since Oct. 6, money that would be available at 12 percent at the Fed's co-called discount window.
Chase's president, Willard C. Butcher, replied that the increase "was warranted" by market conditions. And he added, "We have not borrowed at the discount window since Oct. 6 and we do not believe that this is relevant to a decision to raise or lower the prime rate."
Basically, Reuss, who wants the Fed to abandon a fixed interest rate on loans to member banks at the discount window, is concerned that banks may be borrowing at 12 percent from the Fed and lending the money at the prime rate or higher to their own borrowers.
Over the last two weeks, following sharp downward revisions in weekly money supply figures, some short-term rates have dropped slightly as market specialists gained confidence the Fed would not have to tighten further to get the money supply under better control.
Allen Sinai, an analyst with Data Resources, the economic consulting firm, said the new members, particularly last week's $1.3 billion drop in the money supply, "should ease the panic" that developed in the wake of last month's Fed actions.
The latest two-month growth rates for two measures of the money supply, M-1 and M-2, are at 8.2 percent and 11 percent respectively, Sinai said. "These rates are near the Fed's upper target limits for September-October of 8 percent and 10 1/2 percent," he said.
M-1 is the total of currency in circulation and checking account deposits at commercial banks. M-2 includes, in addition, most time deposits at commercial banks.
"Given a fourth-quarter weekness in the economy, the bite of record-high interest rates, and some deceleration of inflation, the monetary growth rates will soon be within the Fed short-run target ranges," Sinai predicted. "The implication is that no further overt move towards tightening will be necessary," he added.
Besides the progress toward the money supply goals, which might have occurred even if the Fed had not acted last month, commercial and industrial loans levels are rising more slowly. They are up only 3.1 percent in the past month, on a seasonally adjusted basis, a far smaller rise than in other recent months.
But lest all this paint too rosy a picture, Sinai cautions, "the Federal Reserve will still hold to a tough course in the provision of bank reserves until there are clearcut indications that the slowdown is permanent."
Sinai expects the current squeeze on the banking system's liquidity to last between one and three months, about the same as previous credit crunches in the post-war period.
Already the sharp increase in interest rates, coupled with a flight of deposits from thrift institutions, is disrupting mortgage markets, with loans in some areas, including the District of Columbia, hardly being made at all. Other types of borrowers are feeling a pinch as well.