A panel that monitors the Fed sees trouble ahead
In September of 1982, the Shadow Open Market Committee, a group of academic and business economists, predicted real economic growth this year of 4 percent and inflation running about 4 percent. That was far more optimistic than most forecasts. It has also proved far more correct.
Again last spring, Jerry L. Jordan, an economics professor at the University of New Mexico, and a member of the 10-member group, said gross national product would be up 7 percent in the first half and 5 or 6 percent in the last half. Once more he was ''on the nose,'' while most economists still expected a slow recovery.
This shadow group of ''monetarist'' economists, who believe strongly in the influence of money growth on the economy, met again earlier this week to make their forecasts and policy pronouncements. They were sounding gloomy.
''The Fed (Federal Reserve System) has essentially got itself in a no-win situation,'' Dr. Burton Zwick, vice-president for economic research of the Prudential Insurance Company of America, told the press earlier this week. ''They can try to slow things down, but if they do so they risk a much slower economy in 1984, possibly even a recession, before the election.''
Most economists regard such views as somewhat alarmist. According to the average view of a panel of 45 top economists put together by Blue Chip Economic Indicators, the nation's output of goods and service will grow next year by a real 5.1 percent over this year. That is a handsome growth rate. Inflation would move up slightly next year to 5 percent, they figure.
But the forecasting record of the shadow group is good enough that newsmen pay more attention to the body now than they did when it got started 10 years ago. Its semiannual meetings then were attended by only a few journalists. Now a couple of dozen are present.
The group is named after the Fed's monetary policymaking body, the Federal Open Market Committee. Its cochairmen are two prominent monetarists, Karl Brunner, of the University of Rochester, and Allan H. Meltzer, of Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh.
Dr. Meltzer claims a ''quite good'' track record for the shadow panel. It warned that President Nixon's wage and price controls would be followed by higher inflation. They were. They said President Ford's WIN (Whip Inflation Now) program wouldn't work to beat inflation. It didn't.
When Federal Reserve chairman Arthur F. Burns and the real Open Market Committee tightened monetary policy in 1974, it warned this would worsen the recession partly caused by OPEC's fourfold price increase. It did.
Then in late 1976, many economists were saying that high unemployment and surplus manufacturing capacity would permit fast money growth without prompting more inflation. The shadow group maintained rapid money growth would boost inflation. The group was right.
Closer to the present, the Shadow Open Market Committee said the latest recession would not push down interest rates to their old low levels because of a ''risk premium'' - because Fed monetary policy has been so variable that holders of bonds and other debt would insist on a higher return to cover the risk of capital losses. Interest rates remain relatively high.
And so on.
Of course, the group has made mistakes, Dr. Meltzer admits. It predicted recovery in the spring of 1982. Business activity did turn up briefly, but then the recovery was aborted by a sharp slowdown in the growth of money. The real recovery didn't start until November.
In any case, what disturbs the shadow group now is the record 13.8 percent growth rate in the M-1 money figure in the period between the third quarter of 1982 and the second quarter of this year. Since then money growth has slowed considerably.
Moreover, there has also been money growth of between 10 and 15 percent in Canada, West Germany, the Netherlands, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom. ''These policies are shortsighted,'' the shadow committee says. ''There is no reason to doubt that the combination of these monetary policies, accompanied by contractive trade and debt policies, will produce renewed inflation, slow growth , and low investment. They will fail to produce sustained real growth with low or falling inflation.''
At this point, the shadow committee wants the Fed to hold the growth of money to 6 to 7 percent from the fourth quarter of 1983 to the fourth quarter of 1984. If followed by further deceleration in money later, this ''would prevent a renewed burst of inflation and would help the economy to return to stable real growth with falling inflation in subsequent years,'' their policy statement maintains.
Some monetarists fear the Fed will tighten credit too much. But Dr. Zwick figures the central bankers will be under enough pressure from the President and Congress ''to prevent or discourage them from being overly restrictive.'' At the same time, the bond market or the foreign exchange market, by their reactions, will ''discipline'' the Fed from expanding money too much. When money grows fast for a considerable time, interest rates tend to rise. But if, despite such reactions, the Fed lets money grow rapidly, inflation will move to between 7 and 9 percent by 1985-86, Zwick predicts.
Whether the 12 voting members of the real Open Market Committee will take seriously the advice of its shadow body remains to be seen.