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Economic Forecasters' Finger-Crossing Time

THE possibility of recession in the American economy gives Alan Blinder, whose term as Federal Reserve vice chairman expired Jan. 31, ''some,'' but not ''severe,'' concern.

''The economy is muddling along a little below the trend rate of growth,'' says Mr. Blinder, now back at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J. That puts real growth this year at less than 2 percent, using the new ''chain-weighted'' basis for measuring gross domestic product, the output of goods and services in the nation.

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This view places Blinder in the same camp as Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, who told the Senate Banking Committee Feb. 21 that the economy is going through ''a significant soft patch.''

But then in 1990, just as the economy was slipping into a recession, Mr. Greenspan predicted real growth of 1.5 to 2 percent that year and even faster growth in 1991 of 1.75 to 2.5 percent. Though the economy shrank after July, it did grow 0.8 percent in 1990 as a whole, but fell 1.2 percent in 1991.

Greenspan was a business economist with a mixed forecasting record before his appointment to the Fed. His forecasts as Fed chairman haven't been much better than those of the average business forecaster.

Recent data do show a slowdown. In the fourth quarter of 1995, GDP inched up at an annual rate of 0.9 percent. Sales of existing homes fell 4.1 percent in January to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 3.71 million units. But seasonally adjusted housing starts rose 4.4 percent to a 1.45 million pace in the same month.

Economists tend to be cautious in their forecasts right now. ''The economic outlook is indeed foggy,'' writes Sally Kleinman, of Chemical Securities Inc. in New York.

''A recession can't be ruled out,'' says Alan Meltzer, an economist at the University of Pittsburgh and head of the Shadow Open Market Committee, a group of private economists that regularly critiques Fed policymakers. ''But it is premature to forecast one.''

Blinder will be especially watching the employment statistics for February, due out next Friday. If there is no rebound from the cold-weather-dampened January numbers, he will reassess the status of the economy ''in a hurry.'' The Fed, he notes, could react ''quite quickly'' to bad news and loosen monetary policy.

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''But it takes a long time for changed monetary policy to take hold ... two, three, four, at most five quarters,'' he adds. That lag could leave the economy in recession at election time.

Unemployment, Blinder now says, can be as low as ''about 5.6 percent'' without stirring up more inflation. Earlier estimates of this ''nonaccelerating-inflation rate of unemployment'' by Fed economists and others have been as high as 6.1 and even 6.6 percent. But Blinder notes that the jobless rate has been fluctuating around 5.6 percent for 18 months now without boosting inflation.

Professor Meltzer says this unemployment percentage, known by economists as NAIRU, ''isn't a constant that descends upon us from the stars.'' It depends on such variables as fiscal policy, regulation, tariffs, and taxes, a point Blinder would agree with. Meltzer would like the Fed to further lower interest rates in an effort to stimulate growth in the nation's money supply.

In the presidential campaign, Republican candidates have been urging faster economic growth. Blinder figures the noninflationary speed limit is a real 2 percent, at least from the standpoint of the Fed and monetary policy. ''It is not the maximum in that it is given in nature, and there is no way we can do better,'' he says. But improvements in this speed limit will have to come from such factors as better education and training, a cut in the capital-gains tax, replacing the income tax with a consumption-type flat tax, accelerated depreciation, and other supply-side measures.

Advocates of such measures, however, have ''greatly exaggerated'' the positive benefits of such changes, he says. They might add ''0.1 or 0.2 percent'' to the feasible long-term growth rate. ''The real contributions [from such measures] are quite modest,'' he says. A capital spending boom that has lasted some three years in the nation has not had a dramatic impact on growth.

Blinder sees the ''slightest hint'' that more of corporate earnings may reach employees rather than profits in the months ahead. And he does anticipate a recession sometime in the next five years. ''Nobody can predict when,'' he says. It will cause economic pain, he admits, but it should also reduce inflation to zero from the 2.5 percent last year. But, he adds, ''the Fed shouldn't deliberately go about causing a recession.''