"The [inflation] tale will be told by how much, if at all, wage settlements respond" to the administration's economic program. senior Federal Reserve Board official.
Ronald Reagan promised Americans that he would bring down inflation, and price increases have moderated since he took office.
But some experts doubt whether the president's economic program will lead to the lower wage increases needed for a sustained slowdown in inflation. They fear that the inflation improvement so far is mainly luck and may not continue. it primarily reflects lower prices for energy and food, they point out, rather than more moderate wage increases.
Congress has approved the budget and tax cuts requested by the president. But contrary to the expectations of Reagan officials, this has not led to a sharp drop in interest rates. Financial markets apparently still worry about future inflation.
One main reason for this worry is that Reagan has promised to boost growth and employment as well as to fight rising prices. Many economists agree with Prof. Herbert Stein, a member of the president's group of outside economic advisers, that "at some point, the administration very likely will have to face a choice" between the two goals.
But Reagan's latest economic forecasts assume that the choice can be avoided.
Experts who question this optimism are divided over which goal -- lower inflation or faster growth --and which will go by the board if a conflict arises.
Some in the financial community, such as Salomon Bros.' economist Henry Kaufman, believe Reagan's fiscal policy will prove highly inflationary. Huge tax cuts and big increases in defense spending will ensure large federal deficits for several more years, Kaufman claims, and the inflationary effects of the deficit will outweigh the tight-money policy promised by the Federal Reserve Board.
Stein disagrees. He said recently, "If they hold money tight, they will get inflation down," and if the federal deficit stays high, because the administration does not get all the cuts in social programs that it wants, then there will just be higher interest rates, "less investment and productivity growth" and a more sluggish economy.
Currently, the economy fits Stein's description better. In terms of consumer prices, the most popular measure, inflation has slowed markedly since Reagan took office, and, after a burst of growth in the first quarter, the economy has stagnated.
But as the $750 billion in tax cuts become reability, could the pattern be reversed?
Without a tax cut, fiscal policy this year and next would have been very restrictive. For most people the individual tax cuts between now and 1984 will barely offset increased Social Security taxes and "bracket creep" from inflation (whereby people pay a bigger and bigger proportion of their income in taxes as inflation pushes them into higher tax brackets.) These tax cuts, therefore, are unlikely to give much of a boost to the economy.
Calculations for the president's Council of Economic Advisers showed that after adjusting for the level of unemployment and the state of the economy, fiscal policy swung sharply toward contraction between 1980 and 1981. This squeeze will continue until the first of the two 10 percent individual rate cuts takes effect in the middle of next year, according to the CEA numbers.
Administration economists dismiss fears about the size of the tax bill in later years, saying the president remains committed to shrinking the federal deficit and balancing the budget by 1984, and will cut spending more than planned if necessary to reach that goal.
But many budget experts question the administration's spending numbers.
The Congressional Budget Office expects next year's deficit to stay close to this year's projected level of $55 billion to $60 billion. And their latest forecasts show little change in 1983 and 1984.
One strand of administration thinking holds that a tight fiscal policy, with a steadily decreasing federal deficit, is essential for the inflation fight. Wage and price decisions are affected crucially by "rational expectations" of future inflation, which in turn are influenced by the level and direction of federal spending and the federal deficit, the argument goes.
It is certainly true that if everybody suddenly believed that inflation was going to drop, they would be more likely to accept lower wages and prices than otherwise. But experts generally believe that people's expectations of future inflation are formed mostly by their recent experience with inflation, rather than by the spending and borrowing of the federal government.
The willingness of firms and workers to accept lower wages and prices also depends importantly on the demand for thier labor and products. If this is rising, as Reagan predicts, than they are unlikely to moderate demands.
For proponents of the "rational expectations" view, failure to balance the budget could well be disastrous. But others believe that it need not mean worse inflation.
Most economists agree that recent inflation has not been caused by excess demand or unbalanced budgets. One congressional economist who doubts Reagan will shrink the deficit believes, nevertheless, that his spending and tax cuts will be primarily neutral in their effects on the overall economy.
They will, of course, alter the mix of spending between private and public sectors, and the distribution of income between the worse off, who are traditional beneficiaries of federal programs, and the better off, who pay most of the taxes.
Some administration officials argue that this switch alone will help fight inflation. But it is not clear why it should. Public spending is not inherently more inflationary than private spending or private investment. Nor is it more inflationary when, for example, Social Security recipients spend their income than when $50,000-a-year executives spend theirs.
A tight-money policy, with steadily decreasing money growth, is Reagan's main weapon against inflation, although it is wielded by Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker, rather than by the president. But there are two problems with the president's reliance on money control for fighting inflation.
one is that a tight-money policy feeds through to inflation by restricting total output or gross national product and raising the costs of finance. The brake on total GNP from a money squeeze slows output and employment growth, while the higher interest rates and reduced availability of money chokes off some investment. The argument is that firms and workers then accept lower wage and price increases. But an economic slowdown such as this would conflict with the administration's attempts to raise growth through tax cuts.
The other problem is one of internal consistency. For the deceleration in money growth outlined in the administration's Program for Economic Recovery to be reconciled with Reagan's projections of real growth, there must be both a sharp drop in the rate of inflation and a dramatic increase in the velocity of money, or number of transactions as given dollar of money supply finances.
The velocity of money measures how many dollars of GNP are financed by a dollar of money supply. Reagan's forecasts show a fall in the rate of money growth, coupled with a rise in the growth of total GNP (which reflects changes in prices and output taken together) in the next few years. This entails an increase in velocity, as it measures the relationship between GNP and the money stock.
But to the extent that velocity does increase, then money policy is less tight. The whole point of controlling the money supply is to control the growth of total dollar GNP, in the hope that the inflation component of GNP will be squeezed down. And monetaristic theories of inflation, which the administration is following, depend on a fairly stable, predictable velocity of circulation, or relation between money stock and dollar GNP.
If velocity shoots up to accommodate the output growth forecast by the administration, then there is no reason why it should not rise to finance more inflation than the administration predicts.
What has this view of the inflation prospects to do with the wage settlements, which the Fed official thinks will "tell the tale?"
Administration officials belive that their fiscal and money policies will feed through to lower wages if the market is left to itself, although it is less clear how they believe this will actually work. Some, as described above, stress the role of expectations, and others the importance of restraint. Weidenbaum has said that the key restraint on private-sector wage and price decision-makers is "unsold products and unemployed labor."
But Reagan policy-makers agree that the government should swear "hands off" private-sector wage negotiations.
Economist Marvin Kosters believes that the government can affect the bargaining climate quite significantly through its microeconomic policies on items such as import quotas for autos, trigger prices for imported steel, continued deregulation of the trucking industry, farm-price supports and minimum-wage legislation.
Another economist argues that an anti-inflationary stance on many of these issues would fit in with the administration's overall free-market philosophy. That should encourage Reagan to oppose moves to restrict imports, which generally put pressure on domestic producers to hold down prices; to support further deregulation in industry; to oppose generous props for farm prices; and so on.
However, political considerations have so far led him to bargain farm-price supports for votes on his economic program and to encourage the Japanese to limit their auto imports into the United States. Some critics also fear that the administration is slowing the move to deregulate the trucking industry and may back off from some elements of airline deregulation to ease the airline's financial difficulties because of the air traffic controllers' strike.
Firms do not like competition and adjustment, Kosters argues, and so they need to be bullied and cajoled into accepting it. It is too soon yet to tell whether Reagan's microeconomic policy will do this.
Kosters thinks the administration's stance here could affect wage negotiations. He also believes that major union settlements can be important "pace setters" for other wage bargainers.
If he is right, next year will be critical for the administration. It marks the start of a new three-year bargaining cycle, and will set the pace of wage inflation for several key industries such as trucking, rubber and autos.
But Reagan may be lucky here, as he has been so far on food and energy prices. Because of the devastating impact of deregulation on the trucking industry -- more than 100,000 jobs lost so far -- the Teamsters union is expected to modify its contract demands when it opens negotiations for a new national trucking contract late in December. The spring negotiations in the rubber industry will also be tempered next year by the large job losses in the industry in recent years.
The biggest negotiations of the year involve the "Big Three" of the auto industry in the fall. One official has said he wished those were this fall, when the economy is still expected to be weak. But some labor experts believe the serious financial problems of the industry, with the continued outlook for soft auto sales, will weaken the UAW's stance.
That leaves the electrical industry as the most likely pace-setter next year. The International Union of Electrical workers (IUE) is likely to be asking for what one industry negotiator calls "now money," up-front cash, rather than large cost-of-living increases.
The key question will be how much. Although experts disagree, one monetary economist remarked gloomily that those who knew least about labor were most optimistic, and those who knew most feared there may be little improvement.
It seems harder and harder to curb inflation through traditional tools of recession or slower growth. Despite 7 percent unemployment for more than a year, wage rates have hardly moderated. Many economists believe that it will be costly and difficult to bring wage and prices rises down just through fiscal and money policies.
But even if the pessimists are right and wage settlements do not shift markedly downward next year, Reagan may well be able to claim a significant improvement in the rate of inflation when the country goes to the polls in 1982.
That has been sufficient to bring consumer price rises down into single digits for the last few months. When inflation, as measured by the consumer price index, soared to an annual rate of more than 17 percent early last year, it was pushed by the "froth" of energy, food and housing. The underlying rate, measured by hourly earnings or unit labor costs, did not go much above 9 percent. This means that while employes have suffered a drop in their real living standards, there is not another burst of inflation in labor costs stored in the pipeline.
One economist says that part of the recent drop in commodity prices may be reversed, as some sensitive goods are being sold at less than the cost of production. And a White House source agrees that commodity prices may be reflecting economic slowdown as much as expectations of a sustained drop in inflation.
But today's good luck on prices is unlikely to be followed by bad luck, such as dogged President Carter. The spectacular climb of the dollar against all the major trading partners of the United States will exert downward pressure on prices for some time. Although imports form only a small proportion of total costs, one Treasury economist believes that the stronger dollar will put pressure on domestic producers to hold down their prices, too.
Soaring energy costs that exacerbated U.S. inflation in the late 1970s are ruled out for the immediate future by most experts. Moreover, U.S. dependence on foreign oil has been cut drastically, weakening the link between OPEC prices rises and U.S. inflation.
Reagan officials are not satisfied with holding inflation at its present 8 percent to 9 percent level, but many experts wonder how their policies can bring about further significant deceleration in wages and prices without threatening the economic recovery that the president has also promised.