A top administration economic official predicted yesterday that the unemployment rate, now at 9.4 percent, will climb above 10 percent within the next few months.
William Niskanen, a member of the Council of Economic Advisers, said that higher unemployment is an "unavoidable consequence" of policies designed to fight inflation. However, Niskanen said in an interview on CBS Morning News (WDVM, Channel 9) that the Reagan program for recovery already is in place and that after unemployment peaks, the rate might fall to 8 1/2 percent by the end of the year.
Whether or not a recovery begins soon--as Niskanen and most other administration officials believe--consumers don't think the economy is out of danger. The University of Michigan reported yesterday that consumer confidence is declining--in part because of recession and high unemployment and in part because of continued high interest rates.
Another administration official, in a background briefing with reporters yesterday, said the time is past when any new administration policies can affect the recession and the unemployment rate before the November elections.
However, the official--who asked not to be identified--told reporters at a luncheon meeting that the administration can change the nation's "psychological attitudes" toward the economy and instill confidence in consumers and business executives. He said President Reagan will meet with business leaders today to drum up support for the Senate Budget Committee's compromise budget and will meet with investment community officials Wednesday and bankers Thursday to discuss the discrepancy between the low inflation rate and continued high interest rates.
So long as the average consumer remains pessimistic about the future, the administration's chances of seeing an economic recovery soon are dim. Traditionally it has been a renewed spurt of consumer buying that kicks the economy out of recession.
The University of Michigan's quarterly survey of consumer attitudes found Americans reluctant either to go into debt or tap their savings to make major purchases such as cars or large appliances. According to the survey, more than one-third of 2,000 "representative consumers" sampled reported that they put off purchases because of high interest rates.
Consumers did borrow more in March, the Federal Reserve Board reported yesterday. The increase in borrowing could be the first stirring of consumer willingness to buy again. But two-thirds of the $990 million increase in consumer debt outstanding occurred because borrowers slowed down debt repayments. New auto loans fell.
New credit extended rose to a seasonally adjusted $27.46 billion from $27.15 billion in February. But the nation's central bank said that consumer repayments of outstanding debts fell to a seasonally adjusted $26.47 billion. In February consumers paid back $27.08 billion.
Even though the inflation rate has fallen dramatically since October--in March consumer prices fell 0.3 percent, the first monthly decline in 17 years--unemployment has been rising. Last month's 9.4 percent unemployment rate was the highest in 40 years.
Niskanen warned against Democratic-sponsored proposals to spend $2 billion to create special jobs programs. The economist said that, "In the past, administrations have characteristically reacted with such programs during the early stages of a recovery, long after the major problems have passed. I think it would be a mistake to do that again."