US Economy: Mere Dip Or a Serious Downturn?

DESPITE the release of figures showing a weakening American economy, some analysts are challenging the notion that the nation is heading for a recession.

''There is absolutely zero chance of recession in 1996,'' says Ken Goldstein, an economist with the New York-based Conference Board, which took over the US Commerce Department's job of indexing the leading indicators and published its first set of numbers this week.

The index shows a troubling 0.3 percent drop for November, following October's 0.5 percent decline and no gain in September. The index, representing key facets of the economy, is considered an important gauge of how well the economy will perform in the next six to 12 months.

But some economists say the spate of statistics released this week - after being delayed by the government shutdown - are already ''ancient history.''

Defying the conventional wisdom that a pullback in consumer spending will dampen growth in the gross domestic product (GDP), Mr. Goldstein insists that consumption will be one of the economy's three main sources of strength.

''Yes, consumers' debt levels are high and their confidence is continuously pulled down by the public worry about layoffs,'' he says. ''But here are the facts: Car sales were strong in December, and housing starts were up. That doesn't describe a consumer market that is tapped out.''

Goldstein says he's not bothered by the high levels of credit-card debt because consumers are simply using their cards for more purchases - from pumping gas and buying groceries to financing a new car.

Others aren't so sanguine. Peter Jaquette, an economist with the Philadelphia-based WEFA Group, says a continued slowdown in consumption will be the main drag on the economy, especially given that ''employment growth is slow and wages aren't going anywhere.'' Disappointing Christmas sales and the buildup of factory inventories mean that there is a reluctance to spend, and that much of the pent-up demand for cars and household appliances has been met, he contends.

Mr. Jaquette concedes that US exports may continue strong, but ''all other sectors of the economy are either slowing down or falling.'' He adds: ''We've increased our probability of a 1996 recession to 25 percent.''

To Goldstein, that's unnecessary hand wringing. ''This is an economy that's producing, on average, 200,000 net, new jobs each month. That reality will soon allay fears and people will start spending.''

Goldstein's second pillar is business investment. There will be a steady flow, not the surge of 1994 and 1995, in the amount of money companies put into new equipment, he says. Despite the slowdown, he predicts, business investment will still rise four times faster than GDP growth this year.

Barry Rogstad, president of the American Business Conference, confirms that his mid-sized company members plan on slower growth in the first quarter of this year compared with the last three months of 1995. Yet a membership survey shows that half will boost investment outlays this quarter and are ''comparatively bullish about prospects for the entire year. You don't invest if you don't think you can earn a satisfactory return.''

Finally, Goldstein says, the US economy can count on a boost from export growth this year, despite recent government reports that show the US trade deficits with Europe, Japan, and Mexico are widening. US Commerce Department numbers show that 1995 sales of American goods and services to Japan were up 20 percent, and exports to Mexico also climbed steadily last year.

The European Union, the single-largest market for US exporters, is bogged down by budget deficits and persistently high unemployment rates.

Donald Straszheim, chief economist of the brokerage firm Merrill Lynch, is ''increasingly concerned'' about Europe's purchasing power. But he expects both the Japanese and Mexican economies to grow upward of 3 percent this year, compared with no growth or a decline in 1995.

The US Federal Open Market Committee convenes on Jan. 30. Mr. Straszheim expects the interest-rate policymaking body to ease a quarter of a point.

But Deputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers warns that failure to reach a budget accord or worse, forcing a government debt default, would present huge risks to an economy that is ''fundamentally in better shape than any time'' in the past 30 years.

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