Despite mildly reassuring data to the contrary, some economists say, the nation's economy could end up the year with a whimper, forcing the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates again.
"The problem is the stimulus may come too late," says Lacy H. Hunt, chief economist at HSBC Securities Inc., New York.
The government reported Friday that gross weekly earnings of U.S. workers rose 0.4% in September while inflation generally remained quiet. Retail sales also increased by a modest 0.3% last month.
Mr. Hunt, however, sees signs that the economy is "frail" and perhaps moving into its second downturn of the year following last spring's dip.
"The consumer is overleveraged and there is no income or job growth to speak of," which signals that weak consumer demand and excess business inventories may lie ahead, he said.
"The economy is still in the woods," said David A. Levy of Bard College in Industry Forecast, a monthly publication.
"Inventories are rising faster than sales, making an economic takeoff unlikely and a 60% chance of a recession starting late this year or in 1996," he said.
The September increase in weekly earnings followed a 1.2% decline the previous month, the Labor Department report said.
Moreover, only 121,000 jobs were generated last month, the government reported. As in prior months, most were lower-paying temporary or service- sector positions. Higher-paying manufacturing jobs dwindled by 32,000.
Mr. Hunt cited other evidence, such as the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's business index, which he said had declined again after first slipping last spring, then recovering in the summer.
"And they have the Olympics coming up," he said, adding that Atlanta is regarded as perhaps the most economically vibrant metropolitan area in the country.
Mr. Hunt also sees the moderating of loan demand at banks as an important signal.
"After increases above 1.5% per month, the last two months have averaged 0.4%," he said. "So we are so still positive but running at gains of only about a third of the peak."
The economist sees the loan growth slowdown as "indicative of manufacturers curbing inventory growth in the face of weak demand."
Mr. Hunt thinks weakening business conditions will motivate the Fed to cut short-term rates in both November and December by a total of 50 basis points.
"But monetary policy works with a lag, sometimes painfully so," he said. The economist expects subpar economic growth of 1% to 1.5% next year and does not rule out the possibility of recession.
Other economists, however, are far more sanguine.
The economy is running "remarkably close to the optimal path of roughly 2.5% growth," said Charles Lieberman of Chemical Securities Inc., a subsidiary of Chemical Banking Corp.
"Until growth weakens materially (unlikely), or turns stronger (more likely), the Fed can easily afford to leave policy unchanged," he said recently in the firm's publication Market Prospects.
Mr. Lieberman pointed out that job growth this year has averaged 147,000 a month, near the underlying rate of increase in the labor force of 110,000 to 125,000.
He termed that "remarkably close to the fabled soft landing."
In a soft-landing scenario, the Fed restrains growth enough to thwart inflation but not enough to start a recession. Some economists say the feat has never been accomplished, while others say the Fed has done it this year.