Less than three weeks before the election, the government yesterday reported more good economic news -- industrial output last month rose the most in a year and half, and personal income climbed.
The Federal Reserve Board said in its regular monthly report that industrial production increased a full percentage point in September. And the Commerce Department said personal incomes also rose, with wages rising in almost all industries.
The administration was plainly pleased by the figures. They are further evidence that the economic recovery is "not booming but proceeding fairly steadily," said Charles Schultze, chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers.
However, the $10.7 billion annual-rate rise in wages and salaries alone was less than that recorded in the previous month, and consumer spending went up only 0.7 percent, compared with 1.1 percent in August. This supports the view that the recovery now under way will be "slow and perhaps occasionally halting," said William Cox, a Commerce Department economist.
But so far, the final series of economic statistics to be released before the Nov. 4 election has been mostly on Carter's side. In addition to yesterday's news, the latest figures show unemployment continuing to edge down, wholesale prices moderating and retail sales booming.
Unfortunately for Carter, voters may not take much notice of the very recent developments in the economy when they make up their minds which way to vote. Political wisdom has it that a person's perceptions of the economy lag a few months behind events. In this view, the election outcome would be more influenced by what happened in the summer than by the latest month's news.
The summer saw the shift from slump to recovery in the economy, so the precise length of the lag could be crucial for Carter.
Only three major pieces of economic news remain to come before Nov. 4. The all-important consumer price index, which is the most common indicator of inflation, will be published a week from today. Leading indicators giving a guide to the future path of the economy will be out the following week, and early figures showing what happened in the economy as a whole in the third quarter will be published by the Commerce Department today.
These will show the economy picking up from the second quarter slump, economists in the administration and outside say. However, voters are more likely to be influenced than by the government's figure or "gross national product."
They also may be upset by the one economic trend which has gone badly for the administration in the last few weeks: rising interest rates. Last month saw an abrupt increase in the cost of borrowing money. This provoked the president into an attack on the Federal Reserve Board for its money policy, which he said was largely responsible for the interest rate rise.
Treasury Secretary G. William Miller joined in the complaints against the Fed and private bankers. This seemed aimed at putting distance between the administration and the high money costs. However, many bankers now think that rates may come down in the next few weeks, and if Carter is lucky, that downward drift could start before the election.
September's rise in industrial production was fueled largely by a 3.2 percent rise in output of durable goods, the Fed said yesterday. Automobiles and construction supplies were the most buoyant sectors. They were also the two hardest hit during the recession.
Despite increases in production in the last two months, the nation's output is still well down from a year ago. September's level of industrial output was 6.7 percent below September 1979.
Housing starts already announced ensure that construction will go on rising for the next few months, Cox said. The longer term will depend on whether consumers continue spending.
Production of consumer goods rose by 0.9 percent last month, up from the 0.1 percent rise shown in August. Auto assemblies, at an annual rate of 6 million units, increased about 7 percent from the August level, but were still 24 percent down from 1979.
Personal incomes increased by $19.8 billion on an annual basis, equivalent to a monthly change of 0.9 percent. This was more than in August. Incomes have grown "fairly handsomely" in the last two months, Cox said.
He pointed to a rise in savings last month to about 4.6 percent of take-home pay from 4.4 percent in August. Economists had been generally surprised by how soon savings started to fall after their rise during the early summer. The latest figures suggest that as earnings recovered after about six months of falling, people started to put some of their extra money into savings.
Real incomes, after allowing for inflation, probably rose little in September, according to Cox. government benefit payments shot up by 5.3 percent in September, the commerce department report showed.