MOST economists say the Federal Reserve has pulled off something extraordinary: a ''soft landing'' for the United States economy. By imposing higher interest rates starting 14 months ago, the Fed has brought economic growth down to a sustainable, modest pace with only mild inflation.
But take that conclusion with a grain of salt.
Economists ''are not too good'' at predicting recessions, says Stephen McNees, a Federal Reserve Bank of Boston economist famed for his research on the accuracy of fellow economists' forecasts. ''They normally recognize recessions -- rapidly -- after they have begun.''
''It's very hard to forecast a recession beforehand,'' admits David Wyss, an economist with DRI/McGraw-Hill, a Lexington, Mass., consulting firm. ''I am not forecasting a recession now, but I am getting nervous about it. It is a bit of a bet against the odds.''
Since the end of World War II, the US economy has had nine recessions with output actually falling, and only two soft landings with growth dropping to a slow pace, but output not declining. The Fed's present goal is to bring growth in the nation's output of goods and services from the vigorous 4.1 percent ''real'' rate (adjusted for inflation) of last year to between 2 and 3 percent this year.
Economists see those moderate numbers as approximately the natural long-term growth rate for the economy, considering such factors as population growth and productivity.
This month's survey of some 50 prominent economic forecasters by Blue Chip Economic Indicators (Sedona, Ariz.) finds a consensus of 3.2 percent real growth in 1995 and 3.2 percent inflation, measured by the consumer price index.
But there are dissenters. ''The housing sector is already in recession,'' says Lacy Hunt, chief economist of HSBC Securities Inc., a brokerage house in New York. ''It looks like manufacturing also has slipped into recession.''
Nonetheless, Mr. Hunt concludes that although the economy has fallen into a ''significant downturn'' in growth, ''we have to see whether it is a soft or a hard landing.''
Most economists, he notes, are reluctant to forecast a recession. ''It is hard to go out on record calling one, because if you are wrong you are subject to ridicule,'' he says.
The Clinton administration is sticking to its prediction of a soft landing with real gross domestic product up 2.4 percent this year. The latest data is ''consistent with that forecast,'' says Alicia Munnell, the Treasury's assistant secretary for economic policy.
Housing starts plunged 7.9 percent in March to a two-year low. Retail sales, up 0.2 percent in March, are virtually unchanged from their level of last October. Sales of automobiles and light trucks are down about 7 percent from their peak in March 1994. Industrial output in March fell for the first time in six months.
The economy, says Hunt, is suffering from the lagged effects of the Clinton tax hikes of 1993 and the Fed's tight money policy.
Mrs. Munnell, however, holds that the continued addition of new jobs and the ongoing investment in new plants and equipment will keep the recovery going.
''There are no huge imbalances,'' she says.
Most economists figure total output of goods and services was up in the first quarter of the year. Even Hunt sees a 2.3 percent annual growth rate. Government estimates will be announced April 28.
But for Mr. Wyss, one troublesome factor in the economy is a rapid buildup in business inventories of three times the sustainable level. Sales have not met business expectations. The DRI forecast counts on a smooth correction by business of those costly inventories by reducing their orders for goods over some months. ''If instead that corrects all at once, you are going to have at least one negative quarter,'' he warns.
In some previous business cycles, what seemed like a soft landing was thrown into a crash landing by some shock. In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait and consumer confidence plunged and so did the economy, Wyss notes. In late 1973 and 1974, OPEC quadrupled oil prices, pushing much of the world into a slump. But in 1979, the Fed deliberately caused a recession in its battle against double-digit inflation, he adds.
Michael Keran, chief economist for Prudential Economics, bases his more cheery forecast of 3 percent real growth this year on the ''unleashing'' of commercial bank credit. Between 1990 and 1993, he says, banks were restrained in making business loans by the need to build up capital. This was required by new government regulations intended to make banks more financially secure. But by last year, most banks had met those requirements and have since been eagerly offering loans to smaller businesses.
Hunt, though, worries about the slow growth in the nation's money supply. In the past 12 months, various measures of money -- the fuel for economic growth -- have barely grown in nominal terms and declined after taking account of inflation. The 11 monetary contractions in the postwar years produced nine hard landings, Hunt says. The two that didn't occurred during the Korean War and the War in Vietnam when the economy was straining at its monetary leash.
''The economy is pretty shaky,'' Hunt says. ''If you wait to see the whites of the recession's eyes, it is too late.''
Joseph Joyce, an economist at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Mass., says that there has not been a clear relationship between the money supply and economic activity in the last three years or so. But, he adds, economists do expect monetary restraint to bite into economic growth eventually -- perhaps after as long as two or three years.
He sees some slowdown already, however. ''It looks like the Federal Reserve has managed to pull off a good trick,'' he says. ''But even with a soft landing, there will be some job loss.''
A full-fledged recession would mean more unemployment, reduced profits, additional business failures, higher federal deficits, and, if it lasted long enough, political trouble for President Clinton in the 1996 election.
The administration is fully aware of the dangers of high interest rates. But it avoids public criticism of the Fed on monetary policy. Such words could be counterproductive in that it might prompt Fed policymakers to be more stubborn on monetary restraint and could roil financial market concerns about inflation. However, the administration does pass on its views to the Fed when Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin lunches weekly with Fed chairman Alan Greenspan. Other Treasury officials meet regularly with Fed governors and other officials.