Major banks raised their prime lending rates to a record 16 3/4 percent yesterday while the Carter administration continued its sweeping economic review aimed at finding a more effective way to curb inflation.
As part of that review, administration officials said that by mid-afternoon Monday they will have had 15 separate meetings with representatives of a broad range of private organizations at which suggestions for policy changes were sought.
Meanwhile, for the second day in a row, anticipation that the administration would impose some type of credit controls gave a boost to financial markets. Stocks of utilities, which have been hard hit by soaring interest rates, rose strongly with three utility stocks among the most active on the New York Stock Exchange.
"If the administration's inflation package includes selective credit controls, it could stablize rates, including the prime at 17 percent," predicted David M. Jones, an economist for Aubrey G. Lanston & Co.
Carter aides are known to be considering the use of credit controls, but it is far from certain they will recommend that the president ask the Federal Reserve Board to impose them on either business or consumer lending. fFederal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, speaking for the entire seven-member board, strongly opposed credit controls in congressional testimony last week.
A rumor that credit controls were to be imposed yesterday led to a sharp rally in bond prices Thursday. Other rumors that Carter would announce a price freeze hit markets yesterday.
But rumors aside, there is little doubt the policy review will lead to new cuts in federal spending as part of an effort to push the economy into a recession to slow inflation.
The heightened concern over inflation within the administration was cited yesterday by Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland as one reason for the decision not to pay farmers to forego planting part of their land to crops this year. The administration was considering doing so as part of its effort to prop up grain prices in the wake of its decision last month to embargo new grain sales to the Soviet Union.
Bergland said Carter has ordered "a wholesale review of all federal programs to see what can be done to bring this inflation under control."
The department's chief economist, Howard Hjort, said that among USDA's $48 billion worth of programs there are "some that aggravate inflationary pressure." Hjort said candidates for cuts include programs covering rural housing, community facilities, business and industrial expansion, farm storage facilities, and commodities.
Meanwhile, the Commerce Department reported the index of leading indicators fell 0.7 percent in January, the fourth consecutive monthly decline, which normally is a sign a recession is imminent.
However, the index peaked in October, 1978, and dropped in 8 of the 12 months of 1979 -- and no recession has hit so far.
Six of the 10 indicators available at this point contributed to the index's decline, with a drop in the money supply, adjusted for inflation, the most significant, the department said. Four of the 10 increased, including new orders placed with makers of consumer goods, an indicator also adjusted for inflation.
The recession is not far off," Commerce Department William Cox declared. "These numbers are consistent with the view that economic activity is at best flat and possibly declining in the future."
But reflecting the uncertainty among economic forecasters, other economists disagreed. "The index doesn't show enough yet," said Robert Gough of Data Resources, Inc. "In the past year, the index has shown bad signs, leading many people to shout that the recession finally was coming. In each case, however, it didn't happen."
Gough noted that the indicators reflecting "real economic activity, not financial activity" rose in January. They were the length of the average work week, building permits and new orders.
The economy's refusal to plunge into a recession has worsened the inflation outlook, in the opinion of most government and private economists, and is one reason for the current policy review.
"This process of review will be thorough and extensive both on the Hill and outside of the government," White House Press Secretary Jody Powell said. "An important part will be to build the broadest possible consensus for whatever decisions the president may make."
As part of the attempt to find a consensus, the first of the 15 meetings was held Thursday at the White House with representatives of the Business Roundtable, the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Federation of Independent Business and a number of corporations.
Yesterday the meetings continued with representatives of agricultural, health, religious, civic and energy groups. Today education representatives will be in, officials said.
On Monday, at 11 a.m., Wall Street executives, including representatives from Merrill Lynch, the brokerage firm, and Morgan Stanley & Co., an investment banking house, are invited, among others.
A number of the meetings have been with members of the Council of Economic Advisers, including its chairman, Charles Schultze. None has been with the president. Apparently, the administration officials are listening more than they are telling what their plans may be.
What the officials are hearing mirrors the essential difficulty the administration and Congress face in trying to cut the budget. Most of the public and business groups are telling us "to balance the budget, not to cut defense spending, not to hurt the poor, and to have a tax cut," a White House aide said.
Also yesterday the Federal Reserve said the measure of the nation's money supply known as M1-B rose $1 billion, to $393.9 billion, in the week ended Feb. 20. The increase in M1-B, which includes currency in circulation as well as checking deposits at commercial banks and thrift institutions, has been above the Fed's targets so far this year. Fed staff predictions of this were partly responsible for the central bank tightening credit on Feb. 15, one of the reasons for yesterday's prime rate increases.