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ECONOMISTS HOPE BOOM DOESN’T BECOME BIG BUST

SHARE ECONOMISTS HOPE BOOM DOESN’T BECOME BIG BUST

Private economists are keeping their fingers crossed that their forecast of slower growth and a little more inflation come true without triggering a recession.

During the first three months of 1995, forecasters will be watching closely for signs of whether the economy will continue to sustain the longest period of growth and low inflation in more than a generation."We are at a crucial turning point for the economy," said Bruce Steinberg, chief forecaster for Merrill Lynch in New York.

"Either the economy begins to slow and there is just a little more Fed tightening (of interest rates) or the economy remains strong and there is considerably more tightening," he said.

Many economists believe if 1995 begins at the same rapid-fire pace that marked the end of 1994, then the chances of a recession are greatly increased.

To them, that would bear all the markings of a classic boom-bust cycle where the economy expands so rapidly that inflation gets out of control and the Federal Reserve is forced to jack up interest rates so much that the economy topples into a downturn.

At this time, worries about the big, bad Fed and its powers over the economy would seem to be overblown. Even though the central bank has jacked up rates by 2.5 percentage points since February, the fastest pace of tightening in memory, it has had no demonstrable impact.

Sales of homes, autos and big-ticket consumer products, all items that are supposed to be sensitive to changes in borrowing costs, have been surging ahead.

But Laurence Meyers, head of a St. Louis economic forecasting firm, said there is nothing unusual about the failure of the rate hikes to have an impact because the increases followed an unusually long period - more than four years - of falling interest rates.

"The long period of low rates is still dominating economic activity, but that is about to end," Meyers said. "Interest rates still matter, they just matter with a time lag."

Since consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of total economic activity, any slowdown in this area would have a sizable impact on growth, as measured by the gross domestic product.

When the books are closed on 1994, analysts believe it will show the U.S. economy enjoyed the best combination of healthy growth and low inflation in more than a generation.

They are forecasting that the GDP, the country's total output of goods and services, grew 4 percent while inflation rose by about 2.7 percent. That would mark the third straight year that inflation has been under 3 percent, something that has not happened since the mid-1960s.

For 1995, forecasters look for growth to slow sharply to 2.9 percent and inflation to rise a moderate 3.4 percent.