If the stock and bond markets are dependable guides, the nation's economy is not even close to a recession.
The Standard & Poor's 500 stock index has slipped lower in only one month during the past 12, points out Anthony Chan, chief economist at Banc One Investment Advisors.
"Since the mid-1950s," he said, "not one recession has ensued when the S&P index has declined during only one of the preceding 12 months," he said.
Meanwhile, the bond market's typical early warning of recession is a rise in the 10-year Treasury rate in nine of the 12 months preceding the end of a business expansion.
Just the opposite has recently occurred, Mr. Chan noted. The 10-year Treasury rate has fallen in nine of the last 12 months.
Indeed, the robustness of the markets is itself a reason the talk of recession has receded.
"We are still benefiting from the massive financial market rallies of 1995," said Sung Won Sohn, chief economist at Norwest Corp.
"We estimate that the stock market alone increased the overall financial net wealth in our pockets by $2.5 trillion in 1995," he said. "And so far this year, it has probably gone up by another half trillion."
"We further estimate that every time overall net worth goes up by $1 in financial markets, then consumer spending goes up by four cents over three months," he said. "When you multiply $3 trillion by 4%, you see that we are talking about something pretty significant - $120 billion over three months."
But he and others quickly add that no boom is on the horizon either. Indeed, modest growth could also be seen as sluggishness, and not just in this country but in all the world's largest industrial economies.
"It's a slow go," said Edward Yardeni, chief economist at Deutsche Morgan Grenfell/C.J. Lawrence Inc., New York. "Gross domestic product growth has been cut in half over the past year.
"Structural forces, such as aging populations, fiscal drag, corporate restructuring, and job insecurity are depressing growth in these countries," he said. "Inflation remains subdued."
He noted that the growth rate of consumer spending in the Group of Seven industrial countries, adjusted for inflation, has "hovered around 2% for several years." Besides the United States, these nations are Japan, Germany, Great Britain, Canada, France, and Italy.
Mr. Sohn sounded several cautious notes. U.S. retail sales in February were boosted by strong auto sales, which were in turn boosted by promotions and rebates, he noted.
"We estimate that the average rebate per car has been about $3,000," he said. "Given such a high level of incentives, car sales really aren't doing all that well."
Moreover, auto sales supported by such big incentives should be viewed as borrowing from future sales demand. "That is one strike against future economic growth," he said.
Finally, Mr. Sohn said, he thinks the stock market that has been the primary growth force for a year "may now be in the process of topping out." If so, "the big push we have gotten from that may fade away."