Whither the nation's economy? Confounded by recent business trends, some economists seem to be recommending a grain of salt with their previews for the rest of the year.

"The Chinese curse of interesting times hangs over the U.S. economy," said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist in New York for HSBC Markets.

The unknown factor is the Asian debacle. How it unfolds "means it is entirely realistic and reasonable to argue that the U.S. could end 1998 heading into boom or bust-or somewhere in between," he said.

Bruce Steinberg, chief economist at Merrill Lynch & Co., now says that during the second quarter the economy made a "soft landing" from its recent rapid growth phase "with no recession in sight yet."

A soft landing is a slowdown of the growth rate of the gross domestic product. By contrast, a recession is defined as least two consecutive quarters in which the GDP shrinks.

Both Mr. Shepherdson and Mr. Steinberg had expected GDP to shrink in the April-June period because of the drag effect from Asia. Instead, the nation's resolutely confident consumers kept spending, and the economy kept growing.

The latest employment data, released Friday by the Labor Department, contained little to diminish confidence. The U.S. jobless rate in July stayed near a three-decade low at 4.5%, while payrolls grew 66,000, despite the 54-day strike against General Motors Corp.

"The shock from Asia has slowed the economy, but its only intrinsic problem is a potential shortage of workers," Mr. Steinberg said. "In that sense, a soft landing is just what the doctor ordered.

"As growth slows," he said, "a little bit more slack will develop in the labor market. At the same time, companies will accelerate restructuring moves, boosting productivity.

"That sets up the conditions for a pickup in economic growth and earning momentum in 1999," Mr. Steinberg said.

But economists David A. Levy and S. Jay Levy of the Levy Institute at Bard College, Annandale, N.Y., cautioned that "there is little reason to believe the economy can slow markedly without profits falling. That could further shake the already nervous stock market."

Meanwhile, Mr. Shepherdson termed the latest employment report "inconclusive" as a guide to the economy's direction.

"As far as it is possible to tell, it indicates only the most minor slowdown in labor demand-almost exclusively in the Asia-affected manufacturing sector," he said. "There is nothing in this report to support the idea that a wider slowdown is gathering pace.

"The Federal Reserve," he said, "would be much happier to see a significant slowdown in payroll growth outside the manufacturing sector, but so far there is not much evidence of this. But wage inflation remains modest, and this report will not prompt any (interest rate) action from the Federal Open Market Committee."

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