Statistics on US Economy: Up and Down

ONE day new statistics on the United States economy are bad; the next they are good.

That, economists say, is what happens when the economy is growing at a slow speed.

On Tuesday, March 5, it was good news. The Commerce Department said orders to US factories rose 0.5 percent in January. Orders for durable and nondurable goods totaled a seasonally adjusted $311.1 billion, up from $309.5 billion in December.

On March 4, the news was less cheery. Personal incomes inched up a mere 0.1 percent in January, the smallest advance in six months. Consumer spending fell 0.5 percent, the steepest decline in more than three years. Economists noted that the storms that ravaged much of the country in January kept people from working - and getting paid.

The same statistical pattern prevailed the previous week. Total retail sales fell 0.3 percent in January, but were revised upward to growth of 0.6 percent in December. Also, durable-goods orders fell 0.4 percent in January, marked by a steep decline in vehicle sales and decreased spending on building materials and furniture. Nondurable goods posted a tiny gain.

The good news: consumers felt much better about the economy in February, according to a survey by the Conference Board, a New York research organization. The consumer confidence index bounced back to 97 from 88.4 in January.

Further, business inventories fell 0.5 percent in December as firms succeeded in reducing a large supply of goods on shelves and back lots. (A December advance in factory orders had been the first in three months. For all of 1995, orders were up 6.7 percent, compared with a 10.3 percent gain in 1994.)

Looking at the numbers, 36 professional forecasters from the membership of the National Association of Business Economists last month predicted that real gross domestic product - the output of goods and services - would grow a modest 1.9 percent this year and 2.1 percent in 1997. They put chances of a recession in 1996 at 1 in 4, but see the odds increasing to 1 in 3 in 1997

These forecasters expect low interest rates to boost housing sales and maintain consumer spending in 1996.

Other economists differ. Lacy Hunt, of HSBC Securities Inc., New York, writes in a newsletter: ''The recent pattern in payroll employment growth is much closer to that which is typical before recessions than before growth recessions.'' (A growth recession is a period of extremely slow economic growth.) He adds: ''In fact, the current downturn in employment growth has already persisted for longer than before the [recessions] of 1960-61, 1969-70, and 1973-75, when payroll growth fell for 10, six, and nine months, respectively, before the onset of recession.'' Economists will be watching closely when February employment numbers come out on Friday, March 8.

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