VOLCKER FOREVER?

THE REAL SIGNIFICANCE of all the rumors and counter-rumors about who might be the next chairman of the Federal Reserve is that apparently, without ceremony, the Reagan administration has written off Paul Volcker. But don't be surprised if, phoenix-like, the Fed chairman rises from the political ashes. He has done it before.

It's not surprising that the administration would like to see its own man as boss at the Fed. Next August, when Mr. Volcker's term expires, is 15 months before November 1988 when voters go to the polls to elect a successor to President Reagan. It is generally accepted that it takes roughly three quarters, or nine months, for a change in monetary policy to be reflected in overall economic activity. Thus, a new man at the helm would have time to set a course and see that it was carried out to assure a Republican victory.The Fed, numerous studies have shown, tends to go along with the party in power. At the most, as Arthur Burns demonstrated in behalf of Richard Nixon, it means bulling the money supply to guarantee Election Day prosperity and victory to the incumbents. At the least, it means doing nothing overtly to embarrass them.

The problem is that unexpected events have a way of confounding the best laid plans of men. The renewed drop of the dollar is such an event. After seeming to bottom out after a two-year decline, the dollar in recent weeks has taken a new nose dive.

One reason was the record $19.2 billion November trade deficit, reversing what had appeared to be a three-month improvement. Another was the realignment of currencies within the European Monetary Agreement. A third was the administration's willingness - leaked to the press and dutifully denied - to see the dollar move downward further to improve the competitiveness of U.S. exports. And, not to be dismissed lightly, was the talk itself about replacing Mr. Volcker.

The Fed chairman is held in almost reverential regard overseas. And, with this country dependent now on overseas capital to underwrite its huge budget deficit - current borrowing abroad is running $3 billion a week - it has to pay attention to how the foreigners feel and listen to what they say.

What they are saying is that if Mr. Volcker goes, they and their funds may go too. Exactly what they would do with the money is a bit hard to imagine - there is no other investment market remotely as large or as liquid as that in the United States - but the thought is enough to give money market experts the jitters.

So this week it is a bit harder than last week to say that the Fed chairman, if he chooses to remain, will be dismissed next August.

If he chooses to remain is an important condition. With the departure of such old hands and supporters as Henry Wallich and Emmett Rice, it has gotten a bit lonely at the Fed's marble palace on Constitution Avenue. When the two current vacancies on the seven-man board are filled - Edward W. Kelley Jr., a Texas businessman, has been nominated for one of the posts - everyone except Mr. Volcker will have been appointed initially by Mr. Reagan.

A more important reason, however, that Mr. Volcker could decide not to seek or accept office again is that he might perceive that the odds against preserving his reputation, made largely as an inflation fighter, are growing increasingly great.

With oil excluded, underlying inflation for some months has been quite a bit higher than the negligible reported rates. Now, with oil prices stabilized or rising, the reported rates can be expected to become much more alarming.

Even more significant, the Fed - prodded by the Reagan administration - has been boosting the money supply well above ostensible target rates. One observer has referred to it as a monetary explosion. A year from now, when easy money is needed to assure a Republican victory, the Fed may have no choice but to slam on the brakes to slow down what by then, once more, could be galloping inflation.

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