The barometers used to track economic activity moved higher this week, but financial markets were focused on only one thing: When is the interest rate hike going to happen?
Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan assured Congress that the economy is now strong enough to handle a bump in short-term interest rates, which sit at 45-year lows. Greenspan didn't say when the increase would happen, but most analysts are looking at June to August.
The potential for higher interest rates overshadowed positive news in the jobs market, a fractional rise in wholesale prices, and reports from the Fed that the farm economy across the U.S. is in good standing.
That last scenario might include ramped up efforts by the Bush administration to resolve disputes with prominent U.S. trading partners.
Observers of one such conflict, the Japanese ban on U.S. beef, believe little headway will be made in re-opening the top market for American meat until after Japanese elections in July. Even so, a U.S. trade delegation will be heading to Asia to give it another try.
One of the demands being made by Japanese authorities is the testing of all cattle for BSE. So far, USDA has balked at the request, citing a scientific study that concludes testing every animal is unnecessary.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association has come down on the side of USDA. NCBA officials have stated that 100% testing is not based on sound science, the costs potentially would be borne by cattle producers, and the fallout from a false-positive test was too great a risk to take.
Not all ranchers are siding with the government. The Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund is on the opposite side of the fence stating that the industry should give the customer what they want.
Kansas beef processor Creekstone Farms, which already has been denied the chance to perform 100% testing, awaits the next step. Officials at the plant are forced to wait as losses of $100 thousand or more per day continue to mount. Creekstone has yet to decide if any legal action will be taken against USDA.
And in what might be the beginnings of a credible program to trace the origin of infected animals, the USDA is preparing for a summer launch of a voluntary National Animal Identification Program. For its part, USDA is expecting to pay $550 million over five years with producers picking up costs not covered by the program. So far, the Bush administration has requested $33 million for the program in Fiscal 2005 and the USDA has requested more funding from the Office of Management and Budget.