The White House, alarmed that some firms may be raising prices to beat wage-price controls, reiterated flatly yesterday that President Carter will never impose them, and called on big business to avoid trying to jump the gun.
The move reflected concern by top officials in the wake of published reports that some firms are boosting prices sharply to get their increases into effect before controls are imposed.
Carter has no legal authority to impose controls, and yesterday Treasury Secretary G. William Miller and White House inflation-fighter Alfred E. Kahn sent telegrams to 500 top corporations saying he "does not intend to seek it."
The unusual step heightened the sense of urgency surrounding Carter's current economic policy review, which the president began two weeks ago after the financial markets went into turmoil over new signs of mounting inflation.
Kahn and Miller also warned that the administration will intensify its price monitoring to make sure such anticipatory price rises are not contributing to inflation. And they asked for "confirmation" from each firm that its management will comply.
Although Carter repeatedly has denied he is considering wage-price controls, business has become worried anew by recent endorsements of controls by several top economists, including former Carter inflation-fighter Barry P. Bosworth.
Kahn said in an interview the administration suspects that anticipatory price increases may have accounted for some of January's 1.4 percent rise in consumer prices, which sent Wall Street into a tailspin.
The developments came as key administration strategists prepared for meetings with Carter early this week to decide what, if any, new steps the White House will take to help counter inflation.
Officials have been considering a broad range of proposals, from up to $20 billion worth of added budget cuts to credit controls and efforts to trim back cost-of-living increases in Social Security benefits and other programs. b
Carter's top advisers have been suggesting these as possibilites in meetings this past week with key congressional committees and outside constituent groups, but so far have not come up with formal recommendations.
The most likely move so far appears to be toward proposing enough new spending cuts to bring the fiscal 1981 budget into balance. The $615.8 billion spending plan, which Carter unveiled in January, has a $15.8 billion deficit.
Meanwhile, two key Senate committee chairmen indicated yesterday they would support a balanced budget, a cutback in cost-of-living increases for social programs and credit controls, provided housing and auto loans were exempt.
Appearing separately on network television programs, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Russell B. Long (D-La.) and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.), chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, both endorsed the measures enthusiastically.
The two also suggested that Congress might go along if Carter moved later this year to impose import fees on oil to help force Americans to conserve energy. However, both asserted the move should come after the election.
Meanwhile, a former top Kennedy administration economist declared yesterday he was edging toward endorsement of wage-price controls, on the theory that their disavantages were virtually outweighed by the cost of the current inflation.
Walter W. Heller, onetime adviser to President Kennedy and Johnson, said he hadn't "crossed the Rubicon" yet on the issue of controls, but was "on the banks of the river" in the face of rising inflation.
At the same time, however, Ford administration economist Alan Greenspan argued that controls would produce more long-term damage than they are worth, and called for major spending cuts -- $20 billion to $30 billion -- to combat inflation.
Greenspan conceded that Congress might find it painful to enact so large a cut, but he said, "I have never seen a greater willingness on the part of Congress to cut spending generally." He urged Carter to take advantage of that mood.
Kahn said in the interview yesterday the administration would begin monitoring large corporations to make sure they're not raising prices unnecessarily, by examining the books of individual companies to detect anticipatory price increases.
The telegram he and Miller sent to the corporate chiefs said Carter "is determined that he will not impose such controls" and called on businessmen "to avoid actions that contribute further to inflationary pressures or expectations."
"The president's voluntary price standards remain in effect and we expect full compliance," the two officials said. "We need your cooperation in the wage-price moderation program and would appreciate confirmation that you will comply . . . .'