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Fed's Interest Rate Call My Hinge On Earnings Uptick

By John S. McClenahen Despite the marked slowdown in the growth rate of the U.S. economy -- just 3.7% in this year's third calendar quarter -- the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) isn't likely to ease short-term interest rates at its Nov. 15 meeting. A major reason: a surprising uptick in hourly earnings. Preliminary data for the U.S. Labor Dept.'s Bureau of Labor Statistics show average earnings for private-sector production and non-supervisory workers rose 6 cents per hour to $13.89 during October, a 0.4% increase. In manufacturing, however, the rate of increase was twice as high -- 0.8% -- as the average hourly wage rose to $14.53 from $14.42. This is likely to worry the FOMC, headed by Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan. The panel already is biased toward holding inflation in check, and so with the possibility of rising unit labor costs, a cut in the influential federal funds rate seems out of the question. Look for the FOMC to hold the rate at 6.5% next week. "While we believe that the next move from the Fed will be to ease, that move probably won't come as early as the markets expect," opines Bruce Steinberg, chief economist at Merrill Lynch & Co., New York. "Given our growth outlook for next year [3.7% down from 5.2% this year] we doubt that the Fed would ease before the second half [of 2001], if even then."

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