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Economists: Inflation threat growing

Survey of top economists finds inflation concerns closing fast on credit market woes as top threat to economy.

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By Chris Isidore, CNNMoney.com senior writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- A survey of top economists shows that many are growing more concerned about inflation and slightly less worried about mortgage and credit market problems.

According to the National Association of Business Economists, 16% of the 278 members responding believe energy prices are the most serious short-term risk to the economy, up from only 5% who picked that in the March survey.

In addition, another 15% cited overall inflation as the greatest threat, up from 10% in March.

Nonetheless, the financial crisis remains the biggest worry -- 46% of the economists surveyed cited subprime loan defaults, excessive household and corporate debt or the credit crunch as the biggest problem. That's down from the 52% who cited defaults and debt as the most serious threat in the March survey.

Although oil prices have retreated since the July 25 to Aug. 11 survey period, one economist said she doubts that concerns about energy and inflation has abated much since then.

"My guess is it may even be higher," said Brandeis University Business School professor Catherine Mann, a member of the NABE committee that conducted the survey.

Questions about housing bill

Economists also were fairly critical of the recently passed housing bill, signed by President Bush on July 30. Of those surveyed, only about a third said it would stabilize home prices or hasten a housing recovery, even though 59% thought it would reduce mortgage foreclosures.

Nearly eight in 10 of the economists surveyed said the bill constituted a bailout of home borrowers, while 65% said it represented a bailout of lenders. In addition, 71% said it was unfair to those who were not mortgage borrowers.

The bill also allowed troubled mortgage lenders Fannie Mae (FNM, Fortune 500) and Freddie Mac (FRE, Fortune 500) to borrow unlimited amounts of money from the Treasury Department and opened the door for Treasury buying equity in the firms if they needed such assistance.

Three-quarters of the economists agreed that the two firms, the primary source of funding for banks and other home lenders making mortgages, were "too important to fail." Only 20% said the assistance authorized in the bill would amount to nationalization.

The economists also were mostly supportive of the Federal Reserve's response to the crisis in the financial markets: 83% thought the Fed's program to make more money available to banks and Wall Street firms if necessary had been either moderately or highly effective.

However, 88% of the economists said they were at least somewhat concerned this would encourage future risk taking by financial firms. In addition, 55% said the Fed's monetary policy was "about right," up from only 48% who believed that in March. The Fed's key interest rate now stands at 2%

The Fed cut this rate seven times between last September and April, and left rates unchanged in June and August. Most investors and economists expect the Fed to keep rates at 2% following its September and October meetings. To top of page

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