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Morici: What Fed Chief Janet Yellen Should Do

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Last week, Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen sent stocks diving by saying the central bank could begin raising interest rates as early as next spring. Most traders and forecasters have expected the Fed to begin raising rates later than that.

Since the financial crisis began, the Fed has purchased U.S. Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities in varying measures to boost financing for housing and corporate bonds. The benefits have run their course, and those programs are expected to end next spring.

The Fed has kept the bank overnight lending rate near zero, and the question remains: When will the Fed push up that rate?

Here are five things the Fed and Yellen should do.

1. Wait for a big increase in the percentage of adults with jobs.

The Fed has abandoned a 6.5% unemployment rate as the threshold for considering higher rates. Rising numbers of discouraged adults have quit looking for work altogether and don't get counted in the jobless ranks, making that statistic nearly meaningless.

Only 76.5% of adults of prime working age (25 to 54) have a job. That's down from 80.3% when the recession began and 81.8% at the beginning of the century. An alarming one out of six men is not working, and many have few prospects. That can't be explained entirely by changing gender roles. A crucial factor is the tough condition of home construction and manufacturing.

An employment rate at 80% is a long way off, and so should be higher interest rates.

2. Wait for a much stronger housing market.

Housing prices have recovered 42% of the losses they incurred during the recession. Demand has been boosted by investors scooping up bargain-priced foreclosures but that lift is abating.

More young adults are leaving parents' attics and basements. New housing starts are expected to rise to more than  1 million units for the first time since 2007 level, but that is still less than half the precrisis peak.

Comparing median household incomes with median home prices, housing looks quite affordable, but first-time buyers are terribly burdened by student loan debt -- something housing economists don't often factor into forecasts.

Getting housing starts up to 1.5 million is a long way off, and so should be raising interest rates.

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