The Carter administration is work-on a significant tightening of its five-month-old price guidelines on grounds that the present standards are allowing excessive price increases by too many corporations.
The move follows a full-scale review of the flagging wage-price guidelines program in the wake of unusually steep increases in wholesale prices, which officials say raise suspicions of widespread violations.
The White House also is expected to announce soon a series of steps to help combat inflation in specific sectors -- such as trying to slow the rise in milk prices by cracking down on abuses by diary co-ops.
President Carter is scheduled to discuss his plans in a meeting with 10 top business leaders at the White House tomorrow. Proposals to tighten the price guidelines were discussed yesterday at a three-hour meeting of Carter's top economic advisers.
Policymakers also are considering allowing a more liberal interpretation of the 7 percent wage guideline to give the Teamsters union more leeway on a 58-cent-an-hour cost-of-living increase scheduled to take effect next April 1. However, no decision has been made.
How the 58-cent increase should be calculated has been a key issue in the negotiations between the union and the government in the Teamsters contract talks now under way. Allowing a more liberal interpretation would bring the Teamsters settlement closer to the 7 percent guideline.
Meanwhile, in Detriot, United Auto Workers President Douglas Fraser told union leaders Carter's wage-price program is "on the brink of being mortally wounded" and soon will collapse unless prices are held down.
"You can't have a credible anit-inflation program where wages are restrained and. . . prices are climbing at a 12 percent annual rate," Fraser said. He warned if officials can't slow prices, "they should just declare the program dead."
Policymakers say they have not yet decided precisely how to tighten the guidelines. Current standards ask firms to hold price increases half a percentage-point below those of 1976-77. Failing that, they must meet a profit-margin test.
However, planners say any tightening must take account of two factors. First, it must avoid penalizing those firms that have complied with the guidelines so far, and second it must take proper account of recent changes in productivity.
It was not immediately clear what steps the administration planned to take to help slow inflation in individual sectors of the economy. Inflation-fighters have been studying several proposals, but no decisions have been made.
However, planners said it now seems unlikely that Carter will endorse one controversial measure proposed to him earlier, a relaxation of quotas on beef imports. Analysts say there is little beef available for import.
The move to tighten the price guildelines is a direct tesponse to the January and February price indexes, which show exfeptionally sharp increases in several key sectors -- apparently well beyond what the present standards allow.
The Council on Wage and Price Stability has turned up 15 to 20 firms that authorities say have been violating the guidelines, and has begun sending them formal notices. Citations have gone out to a least four firms.
Under the wage-price program's complex procedures, the White House could begin naming its first corporate "violator" by tomorrow. However, officials say this probably will be delayed for another two weeks.
Sources say the price guidelines would have to be tightened now even if violations did not appear to be quite so widespread. "As a practical matter, there's an awful lot of slippage in these things," one insider said.
Although final decisions have not been made yet, sources indicated the tightening would be the equivalent of asking corporations to hold 1979 price rises one percentage-point below the 1976-77 average, rather than 0.5 percent below.
However, the formula would be set so that firms which have been adhering to the guidelines over the past several months would not ha ve to roll back any price increases.
Similarly, there would be an adjustment for productivity so that firms with higher or lower productivity would be able to include such changes in their calculations.
The administration has identified 12 industries where price increases have been suspiciously rapid -- meatpacking, tobacco, beer, bakeries, drugs, chemicals, gypsum and cement, plywood, batteries, textiles, shoes, and tires.
Carter's meeting with the business leaders will be the second he has scheduled with corporated executives in the past week. The president had set a similar session Friday on his hospital cost-containment plan, but canceled it abruptly.
Sources said that the Friday session was scrubbed after White House aides discovered most of the business leaders they had invited vigorously opposed Carter's plan.