The Federal Reserve pulled off an economic master stroke two years ago when it managed to throttle back the economy and deter inflation without also starting a recession. Can it do so again?
"Yes, by tightening credit incrementally while constantly reassessing the situation, just as the Fed did previously," asserted Rosanne M. Cahn, chief economist at Credit Suisse First Boston Corp.
Probably not, according to Tony Riley, research director at A. Gary Shilling & Co. "We are considerably nearer the end of the current economic cycle now, and we've never had two soft landings in the same cycle."
The simplest definition of a soft landing, Mr. Riley said, is a sustained period of Fed credit tightening that is followed by a sustained period of easing-without a recession in the middle.
The Fed raised rates seven times in 1994 and early 1995. The economy slowed markedly in the spring of 1995, with some observers warning of recession, but business conditions rebounded and have gained further strength recently.
The latter development led Chairman Alan Greenspan's central bank-which eased rates three times from July 1995 through January 1996-to begin tightening credit once again March 25.
"You can change interest rates a little and wait to see what influence they have, change them a little more if you need to, and change them back if it turns out you've gone too far," said Ms. Cahn.
"To argue that they can't do it again, you have the burden of answering why not and explaining what's different" from 1994-95, she said. "While there are many little differences, it's not obvious that anything is a lot different."
Ms. Cahn also has one of the most aggressive economic forecasts on Wall Street. She sees the central bank raising the federal funds rate three more times, ending up with a target rate of 6.25% at its Aug. 19 monetary policymaking session. By then, she also expects a 7.5% yield on the Treasury's 30-year "long bond."
Still, Ms. Cahn expects the economy to grow at annual rates of 3.5% in the current quarter and 3% in the third quarter-only slowing to 2.5% in the fourth quarter, which is the Fed's "speed limit" for expansion. Growth in the first quarter this year probably hit 4%, she said.
Other economists do not see the Fed moving the funds target above 6%, which was the peak it reached in early 1995.
"We still see Greenspan as a gradualist," said Donald H. Straszheim, chief economist at Merrill Lynch & Co., but he laid out a different scenario for rate increases in a recent conference call to customers.
"We think they will take the funds rate up another 25 basis points at the May 20 meeting and then again by another 25 at either the July 1-2 meeting or on Aug. 19," he said. "The peak we see for funds is 6%."
Mr. Straszheim expects significant weakening of the economy in the second half of the year but no recession.
Mr. Riley of the Shilling firm in Springfield, N.J., said he thinks a repeat soft landing is significantly less likely this time because the economy is "less robust" in the latter part of the business cycle.
He noted that the Fed during the long upswing of the 1980s "did indeed pull off what is generally regarded as a soft landing in the middle of the expansion, but the subsequent Fed tightenings gave way to recession."
Mr. Riley said he thinks the Fed likely will keep raising rates as long as the economy is growing at a 3% annual rate or better. And how long that goes on depends on the consumer.
"If consumer spending slows quickly, following two fairly torrid quarters of spending (the fourth and first quarters), then the Fed may be able to stand aside and achieve a soft landing akin to 1995," he said.
"But with income growth so strong and the saving rate relatively high by recent standards," he said, "consumers have the wherewithal to keep spending and push the Fed into a series of rate hikes that could finally end the expansion."