THE ECONOMY IS LOOKING BETTER than a few weeks ago, the Federal Reserve's grip on money and credit appears just a bit looser, and worry lines in the faces of some Reagan administration officials have relaxed.
President Reagan's economic team now seems fairly satisfied with how the economy is unfolding. His chief economist, Beryl Sprinkel, has quit sounding alarms about the risk of a recession if Fed policy did not relax. Treasury Secretary James Baker said Fed policy was now adequate. And Budget Director William Miller, who sometimes worried the Fed was too tight, said there is no need for the president's advisers to urge him to jawbone the Fed, even in private.Recent data point toward a slowing in economic growth, but away from a budding recession. That relieved some pressure for the Fed to ease money policy.
Coincidentally, say private Fed watchers, technical factors produced a temporary speed-up in the money supply last month that probably had nothing to do with any policy shift. Financial markets themselves pushed interest rates downward in reaction to a slower economy.
But besides those factors, the weight of evidence suggests that the Fed did ease very, very slightly in recent weeks, said former Fed Governor Lyle Gramley.
I'm very puzzled by the move, confessed Mr. Gramley. He said the easing ran counter to Fed signals. And the loosening was so slight it has no significance of any enduring kind for the economy.
He speculated that Fed officials did not want to counter the market trend toward lower rates - they sort of let it happen - but did not want to make a stronger move until the economy's direction is clear.
Mr. Gramley, chief economist for the Mortgage Bankers Association, never expected a recession, and now plans to revise his 1988 growth forecast upward. His new estimate will be close to the White House forecast of 2.4 percent.
Rudolph Penner, a conservative economist who previously expected recession this year, changed his mind in light of recent data. Big risks remain from a weakened consumer sector and nervous markets, but he said economic trends in the very short run seem to be doing better than he expected.
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TO FRANK BUHLER, whose packaging firm supplies factories and retail stores
from New York to Arkansas, the basic economy looks pretty good. For this time of year he is seeing better business conditions right now than we've seen in many years.
Mr. Buhler is president of Old Dominion Box Co., Lynchburg, Va., which makes and sells products from corrugated boxes for factory goods to lightweight boxes used by pharmaceutical firms and specialty boxes for retailers.
He said retailer demand is down, but no more than normal for this season. Meanwhile, he sees healthy demand from manufacturers and producers of health- care products.
Instead of seeing warning signs of a recession, Mr. Buhler these days is a little bit bullish on the economy.