AN ECONOMY ADRIFT?

WHAT SOME ARE CALLING a leadership crisis in the Reagan administration is taking place amid signs that the economy continues to drift, raising new questions about when serious economic trouble spots will begin to clear up.

While the administration's economic team appears undamaged by the Iran- Contra affair and should be able to proceed with policy, the administration 's ability to influence policy measures as they move through Congress may be weakened.The performance of the overall U.S. economy isn't helping much. Despite some pickup for manufacturing suggested by the latest jobs figures, that sector is growing only modestly. In addition there have been other signs of economic weakness recently such as in housing.

Even the seemingly good news of a 0.6 percent rise in leading economic indicators was discounted by many economists as overlooking a basic sluggishness the economy hasn't been able to shake. Some warn that the economy early next year will grow so feebly as to skirt the edge of recession.

There are optimistic voices saying the economy is ready to grow faster and show more strength. There is only a reluctance by the players, a problem of attitude, they say.

Parts of the economy show a bleaker scene. The ailing energy and farm sectors have weakened local economies and threatened financial institutions in many areas. The depressed maritime industry has little hope of seeing government aid restored and needs a rise in exports. The aviation industry fears a new round of costly fare wars that could result if a general economic downturn curbs travel.

The liability insurance crisis continues to threaten many other areas of life, as enormous claims and court-ordered payments trigger enormous premiums for all sorts of risk.

The sluggish economy tends to put more responsibility on the Federal Reserve, for good and bad. The Fed is hardly likely to be hindered by the Iran affair, but if the Fed alone must carry the ball for economic growth it may increase nervousness in financial markets.

Already Fed officials have felt their freedom to maneuver was constricted by market fears about future inflation.

Veteran Washington hands say the administration for now may avoid exercising bold leadership in areas unrelated to Iran, for fear of the charge it would be trying to distract critics. Even if the administration does launch initiatives, it may have trouble getting people to follow.

And leadership is needed. Careful attention and steady hands should be directed to a list of festering economic ills, which will not simply fade away and which sluggish growth cannot cure.

From the federal budget deficit to the trade deficit, from international debt to domestic bank failures, the problems continue to loom large and the improvements we have seen have been partial and tentative.

No doubt, Congress and the administration should be able to move ahead on many problems despite the serious distraction of the crisis at the White House. Perhaps the steps the president and others are taking will put much of the damage of recent weeks behind them.

The continuing evidence of an economy adrift has merged uncomfortably with the picture of a government in similar straits, and the view is disquieting.

For the full story: Log In, Register for Free or Subscribe