LAST week's releases on economic news all portrayed a slowing economy. Not only the revision of third-quarter GNP to a growth rate of only 1.9 percent, but also the monthly wiggles for various segments of economic activity, suggest an economy going nowhere or even possibly down.
The news recalled a conversation I had with the head of the credit department of a bank I worked for in Phoenix, Ariz., in the early 1960s. (I also remember the street corner, and the sudden evening coolness of the early winter desert air.) This man was not a professional economist, but an astute independent observer of what was going on. Business was worried about President Kennedy at that particular moment, and the conversation was over whether the economy might be on the verge of another recession.
Not a chance, he said. Business was too much influenced by the memory of three recessions under President Eisenhower, he said. It didn't realize that the country now had next to no inflation. Why, he suggested, he wouldn't be surprised if the economy went all through the 1960s without a recession.
Something like that almost happened, you may remember. And while the later ' 60s saw the start of the inflation that became so hard to cure in the '70s, the fact is that the 1950s had set up an economic environment in which the growth of the '60s could occur.
No period is exactly like any other. Today no one can or should forget the overhang of the large federal budget deficit, or the overvalued dollar, whose turn downward could create new problems for economic management. But today's economy has at least three things in its favor. They make an imminent recession unlikely, and may even push out this recovery beyond the 1986 date at which many economists now place the next recession. The favorable factors are:
* The degree of balance in most sectors of the economy. There are no serious strains or overuse of capacity yet. Capital spending has been unusually high for this stage of the recovery and may cool down in 1985 - particularly if the outlook is cloudy.
* The generally good outlook consumers have about the immediate future. Buying plans have remained high. At the same time, the low inflation numbers relieve any sense of pressure about buying now to beat future inflation. On the business side, this continues to be a period of innovation, with abundant investment funds available for projects requiring risk capital.
* The flexibility remaining at the Federal Reserve. In the short run, this may be the most important of the three items listed here. The Fed lowered the discount rate from 9 percent to 81/2 percent last week. Some Fed observers think that so far the Fed has merely been following rates down - that is, economic softening itself has led to lower rates, not Fed initiatives to bring the rates down. If this is the case, the Fed can still show some initiative if the economy needs a little help.
There was certainly no evidence during the election campaign that the Fed was playing politics with rates. With the money supply running close to the bottom of the target range set for it by the Fed, the central bank can afford to be more generous.
What has concerned Fed-watchers in the past is that the Fed does not make its moves soon enough. The Fed's actions have a lagged economic effect, so the Fed is always in the uncomfortable position of acting on insufficient evidence. Assuming the Fed does not make that mistake again, there seems to be ample leeway to accommodate the economy's needs.