After three interest rate cuts, the Federal Reserve is not expected to act again when its monetary policymakers gather Tuesday for the last time this year.
But few observers guessed a year ago that the nation's central bank would be considering a fourth rate cut. Many economic forecasts for 1998 missed the mark. By now, the Fed was supposed to have raised rates.
"A year ago, the widespread expectation was that the U.S. would be little affected by the crisis in Asia, but that growth would slow as consumer and corporates reined in their spending, most likely under the weight of higher rates from the Fed," said Ian Shepardson of High Frequency Economics in Valhalla, N.Y.
According to the consensus view of 12 months ago, the Fed would surely be impelled into action by higher inflation triggered by increased employment costs in a tight labor market.
Few could have anticipated the Russian economic crisis and default of last summer or the magnitude of the global financial shock wave it triggered. Then there has been the astounding buoyancy of stock prices, as the market "double-topped" a few weeks ago.
Finally, what rational observer would have prophesied a year ago that as 1998 waned, President Bill Clinton would be facing the prospect of ouster from the White House and that House Speaker Newt Gingrich would already be gone?
Today the general opinion is that the economy will slow next year as consumers run short of spending power, inflation will recede further, and the Fed will resume cutting rates-albeit not on Tuesday. But Mr. Shepardson and some others are skeptical about the consensus.
"We see risks to all these views," he said. "The economy will slow, but there are real upside risks to growth, particularly in the first half of the year as consumers spend their mortgage refinance cash flow and tax refunds pour in."
There are also hints that inflation may not be dead, and there are even some signs of life in the hard-hit manufacturing sector.
"The Fed will need to find strong reasons to cut rates in this environment, and we think that will be a struggle," Mr. Shepardson said.
Stuart G. Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Bank Corp. of Pittsburgh, also disputes the notion that the nation's long economic expansion will soon end because the personal savings rate has fallen below zero and consumers are, in short, tapped out.
"The problem with this analysis is that consumers' 'savings' are one of the most mismeasured statistics in the government's otherwise fairly accurate array of economic reports," he said.
"First, consumers' savings are defined as after-tax income minus spending," he said. Because some earnings go unreported, perhaps to avoid taxes, that means "measured savings are consistently biased downward."
Second, he said that whenever a consumer buys or leases an automobile or other big-ticket item, the entire outlay is counted as "spending" in the month it was arranged. "Thus, when vehicle sales are strong, as they were in June, September, and October, consumers' 'savings' are depressed.
The typical family with a median after-tax monthly income of $3,000 does not buy a $20,000 vehicle by dipping into savings for the $17,000 difference, he said.
Third, government statisticians miss a significant amount of savings, often matched by employers, that go into 401(k) accounts.
Fourth, realized capital gains on appreciated stocks create a tax liability that is deducted from current income, but the capital gain itself is not counted as earned income-though it is a source of cash inflow or "savings."
Finally, during times of heavy mortgage refinancing, reduced interest and increased principal payments are not fully recognized as increased "savings" in the form of debt prepayments.