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Wall Street's Top Dealers Say Fed Rate Hike Seems Inevitable
By Svea Herbst-Bayliss   Reuters
NEW YORK — Wall Street's top dealers said on Friday the Federal Reserve's new year's resolution is to boost interest rates modestly in February, with chances rising for more credit tightening by the summer.

In a Reuters poll, all 30 primary dealers of U.S. government securities said they expect the Fed will push its key federal funds rate up by a quarter of a percentage point to 5.75 percent at its first meeting of the year on February 1-2.

Six firms have joined the call for a February rate hike since Reuters' last polled primary dealers in late December. They cited strong U.S. growth, as seen in the robust employment report for December, that Fed policymakers will try to slow to before inflationary pressures build.

Twenty-seven of the 30 firms that deal directly with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in U.S. markets also said they see the fed funds rate at 6.00 percent or higher by the end of June.

That's up from only 22 dealers looking for more tightening in a poll taken immediately after the Fed's Dec. 21 meeting.

"We look for a tightening of 25 basis points in February because the U.S. economy is growing above its trend potential and the Fed is clearly uncomfortable with that," said William Dudley, chief U.S. economist at Goldman Sachs.

On Friday, news that 315,000 new jobs had been created outside the farm sector in December merely confirmed what Wall Street already knew — America's red-hot economy is steaming along even as there are no red flags warning of inflation yet.

Economists had forecast a gain of 224,000 new jobs in December, already topping November's number which was revised down to a gain of 222,000 new jobs.

In the same report, the Labor Department said hourly wages increased by 0.4 percent, just slightly more than the 0.3 percent Wall Street had expected.

David Jones, chief economist at Aubrey G. Lanston & Co. said Friday's data were not entirely neutral but were also not a "major jolt for the market" because the overall employment figures were not far off expectations.

Therefore "there is not (any) kind of urgency to warrant a 50 basis point hike in February," he said.

But the question still haunting the financial markets is at what point the Federal Reserve may need to shift into a faster gear for tightening. U.S. stocks are just now recovering from sharp losses fanned by fears earlier this week of more aggressive rate hikes.

Sparking the concerns are forecasts that growth will top 4.0 percent in 2000, showing few signs of a slowing.

"The picture was not really altered by the jobs data but rather by growth forecasts. With growth seen near 4.0 percent in 2000, the Fed will have to do a lot more this year than last year to slow the economy down," said Warburg Dillon Read economist Patrick Dimick.

While economists express certainty about a rate hike in February, they remain split over whether the Fed will lift rates by another quarter of a percentage point in March or May. Some economists also saw a chance for a half a percentage point hike in March.

A half a percentage point hike in February was seen as unlikely because Fed chairman Alan Greenspan has not laid the groundwork for such a move. But it remains a possibility for March, Fed watchers said.

In the six weeks between the February and March meetings, Greenspan will deliver key testimony before Congress and have several other opportunities to prepare Wall Street if he deems aggressive moves necessary, several economists said.

"We could have two or three appearances in that time and there would be a statement from the FOMC where the Fed could present a very hawkish case. It might be better to do this in March with only 6 weeks between meetings rather than in May with eight weeks between meetings," Chase Securities economist Bill Sharp said.

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