THE United States economy has just fallen into a recession or will do so within several months. That is what a majority of economic forecasters are saying. The ``soft landing'' hoped for by the Federal Reserve System and other economic policymakers is going to be a ``hard landing,'' warns Robert Eggert, editor of Blue Chip Economic Indicators, in Sedona, Ariz.
If so, hundreds of thousands will lose their jobs, putting the unemployment rate up to an average 5.9 percent next year, according to the latest Blue Chip consensus of 52 economists. Federal revenues will be weakened, worsening the deficit. Business profits will decline and bankruptcies become more numerous. Troubled savings institutions will have a tougher time returning to profitability. More ``junk'' bonds will deserve their name.
So far most economists are predicting a mild recession. The average of the Blue Chip panel anticipates 1.1 percent real growth in national output this year and 1.2 percent real growth next year. That implies an economic dip that is followed quickly by a recovery.
Mr. Eggert was surprised by his forecasting group's sudden pessimism. ``It is a very sharp change in a rather short period of time,'' he says. Responding to a question as to when the next recession would start, half of the economists said this year; another 8 percent said in 1991.
What apparently prompted the shift was a significant downward revision in July of national output figures for 1989 and slow growth in the first half of this year; the rise in oil prices as a result of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait; and a batch of business conditions data for August that suggest, as David Hale of Kemper Financial Services, Inc., puts it, that the economy ``is slouching towards recession.''
Payroll employment excluding census workers rose by 45,000 in August and 84,000 in July, compared to an average of 165,000 per month during the previous 12 months. In August, unemployment rose 0.1 percent to 5.6 percent, retail sales fell 0.6 percent, and industrial production dipped 0.2 percent. A surge in the cost of oil sent producer prices up 1.3 percent, the largest increase since January. Personal disposable income - what people have left over after paying taxes - fell by about six-tenths of 1 percent in August after adjustment for inflation.
Polls of small businesses and consumers have shown a drop in confidence. Concerned for their jobs and the future, some people are restraining their spending. A recent survey shows corporations intend to raise their capital spending by only 5.4 percent this year, compared to earlier estimates of a 6 to 7 percent gain.
When the majority of economists predict a recession, that majority is not always right. Nonetheless, consensus forecasts of a recession did coincide with the serious ones that started in late 1973 and mid-1981 and did precede the brief 1980 downturn by about a year, according to Stephen McNees, a Federal Reserve Bank of Boston economist who has examined the record of consensus forecasts.
And, of course, some economists are still predicting slow growth rather than an actual slump. Gail Fosler, chief economist of the Conference Board, a New York business research group, counts on growth running at a modest 1.5 percent annual rate in the current quarter and picking up to 2.6 percent in the fourth quarter. That slow growth, combined with the cost of the Iraq-Kuwait affair, should boost the deficit $20 billion in fiscal 1991, she figures.
One favorable factor economists note is the rise in exports prompted by a weak US dollar. Western Europe and Japan economies remain strong, creating a good market for US goods.
There is a widespread expectation among economists that the Federal Reserve System will soon act to lower interest rates. Fed chairman Alan Greenspan last week hinted this might happen right after the Bush administration and Congress agree on a deficit-shrinking fiscal package.
``Only the Federal Reserve has an immediate opportunity to offset the harsh news of war threats, higher energy prices, defense industry layoffs, and construction woes,'' says Roger Brinner, chief economist with Data Resources Inc., a Lexington, Mass. consulting firm. ``We expect our central bank to show some generosity by allowing short-term interest rates to fall by a quarter-point in September and another quarter-point in November.''
Economists differ as to whether lower short-term rates will also push down long-term interest rates, such as those on mortgages and bonds. The Fed has been concerned that lower rates here might prompt too great a fall in the dollar and discourage the inflow of funds that helps finance the budget deficit.
In any case, when the finance ministers of the Group of Seven major industrial democracies meet Saturday in Washington, it is considered unlikely that they will attempt to boost the dollar.
Meanwhile, talk of recession grows. Business forecasters at the University of California, Los Angeles, last week predicted a recession lasting at least six months. They talk of output declining at an annual rate of 2.4 percent in the fourth quarter and 1.2 percent in the first quarter of 199l.
Albert Sindlinger, of Sindlinger & Co., a business survey company whose researchers make hundreds of calls around the nation each week, finds the ``current'' recession is already affecting 68.6 percent of households, 28 states and the District of Columbia. And, he reports, the slump is deepening, so far affecting the Northeast the most.