When responsible financial market experts like Henry Kaufman of Salomon Bros. predict the banks' prime lending rates could get as high as 25 percent next year, there is plenty of reason to worry.
When the prime rate recedes, almost all agree, it probably won't go lower than 14 or 15 percent. There is no precedent in this country for such a high plateau, and it is hard to tell what it portends. Some analysts are beginning to refer to the "Latin Americanization of U.S. financial markets."
If you ask, in some bewilderment, all this is happening, the answer you get from the so-called experts is that inflation is out of control, and no one really expects the Reagan administration can get the genie back into the bottle -- at least, not next year.
The budget deficit next year will be $50 billion or more, meaning the federal government will be continuing to borrow huge amounts of money. The centerpiece of the Reagan economic program remains the massive Kemp-Roth tax cut, at a time when comparable cuts in the budget will be much more difficult to achieve. That's inflationary in itself.
Inflation is also going to get a boost from drought-induced food price increases, from further costs in energy due to oil decontrol here and OPEC squeezes from abroad. Mortgage rates are following the prime rate upward, and like bank lending rates, the mortgage rates be stickier on the downside than the upside.
Wage pressures will be on the increase next year -- at the very time, economist Walter Heller reminds us, that the Reagan administration will be junking the vestiges of Carter's halfhearted voluntary wage-price restraint program. Moreover, the minumum wage is going up Social Security taxes are going up, and no one wants to bet that there will be much if any gain in productivity.
Against all these inflationary pressures, what can be brought to bear? As the late Art Okun said, the Fed is operating "the only anti-inflation game in town," and Fed Chairman Paul A. Volcker says he is going to play the game tough, pushing interest rates even higher -- hoping, but not anticipating, that he may get some help in the anti-inflation fight if Congress couples spending cuts with Reagan's tax cutting proposals.
But the Fed's determination to intensify tight money pressures is causing great pain. It is wrecking the housing industry and has aborted any chance Detroit may have had for a comeback with its smaller, fuel-efficient cars. Apart from Chrysler (which might be on the ropes anyway), Kaufman predicts a rash of corporate bankruptcies.
Some apologists for high interest rates argue that a 20 percent bite actually amounts to only 10 percent after taxes. Indeed, that is the "real" interest cost for the high-income person in a 50 percent tax bracket. But how about the low- and middle-income person stuck with, say, a 24 percent loan on a used car and who isn't wealthy enough to be able to itemize deductions on a tax return? For him or her, a 24 percent interest is a 24 percent interest rate is a 24 percent interest rate.
Top officials at the Fed pay lip service to this "worrisome" trend. They are surprised that the housing industry is not totally crushed. But a majority of the 12 members of the policy-making Federal Open Market Committee are poised to go further. They have hoisted the discount rate twice in the past month to 13 percent (16 percent in certain cases for large banks) with the single opposing vote of Federal Reserve Gov. Nancy Teeters (so far as is publicly known at the moment.)
Teeters voted against a discount rate increase for the second straight time, she told me, because "interest rates are too high considering the state of the economy."
There are no doves on the Reagan side lining up Teeters. If anything, there are some influential voices in the Reagan camp that are even bigger hawks than the Fed majority. They would be happy to get rid of Paul Volcker and find some monetarist who would establish and meet even more rigid monetary growth goals.
Volcker, whose term as chairman lasts until 1983, will stay on, regardless. The majority he has on the FOMC is likely to prevail until the economy slumps into a recession.
There is something crazy about a national policy which could tolerate a 20 percent prime rate, a fall to 11 percent and a rise to 20 percent again -- all in the square of 10 months. If there were som guarantee of success (i.e., a reduced rate of inflation when the recession arrives) maybe this course could be rationalized.
But the Fed isn't in a position to guarantee anything. In fact, it admits that a given level of interest rates these days has to be much higher in order to discourage economic activity than was the case 10 or 20 years ago. Thus, if the Fed is running the only game in town, it's not one you can count on.