Data on business activity continue to hint of a "soft landing" for the economy.

In contrast to a recession, a soft landing beckons invitingly as a period of generally predictable business conditions with modest inflation and stable interest rates.

But just what defines a soft landing?

Uncertainty about the phenomenon stretches beyond the usual ambiguity of economics, since "soft landing" is a relatively new phrase referring to something some people think has never happened.

Economist Rosanne M. Cahn of CS First Boston Corp., New York, has studied postwar economic slowdowns and spotted five episodes that may qualify as soft landings. Three were followed by economic rebounds and two by recessions.

The shortest one fitting her definition was in 1962 and lasted three quarters. The longest and most recent went on for a full two years, from mid-1988 through mid-1990.

At that point Iraq invaded Kuwait, noted Ms. Cahn, "allowing Saddam Hussein to be used as a scapegoat for pushing the enervated economy into recession."

Of 25 slowdown quarters she surveyed, all except the four-quarter period in 1984-85 had at least one quarter with under 1% growth and another at less than 2%. The average slowdown-period growth rate was 2.1%.

A stricter definition of soft landing is offered by Robert G. Dederick, economic consultant to Chicago's Northern Trust Co.

"I would define a soft landing as the economy's growth rate dropping to 2% to 2.5% and staying there, ideally forever at full employment, but for at least two quarters," he said.

He refers to periods with growth under 2% as "growth recessions," a term used during the post-Vietnam economy of the 1970s.

In fact, the label is applied most easily to the five-quarter slowdown period from early 1979 through early 1980 that was marked by high inflation and characterized as a time of economic malaise.

Mr. Dederick identifies two postwar soft landing periods, mid-1966 through mid-1967 and mid-1984 through late 1986.

No slowdowns identified by either of the economists occurred in the 1950s. That was a decade of notably strong growth for the American economy, interrupted by clear recessions after the Korean War and at the very end of the period.

The 1962 slowdown - the earliest and most atypical of the periods focused on - perhaps reveals how much the nation and its economy have changed, along with business and political conditions globally.

Economic growth slowed from 5.4% in the first quarter of that year to 4.2% in second, 3.2% in the third, and a negative 0.4% in the fourth. But the single quarter of economic shrinkage does not constitute a recession, which by most definitions entails two or more consecutive quarters of economic contraction.

In 1963, the year after the slowdown, growth rebounded strongly to 5.3%

The four-quarter slowdown from mid-1966 through mid-1967 was mild, with growth averaging 2.2%, according to Ms. Cahn's research. In the following year growth rebounded to 4.8%.

In contrast, growth during the slowdown from the first quarter of 1979 through the first quarter of 1980 averaged a weak 1.1%. A full-blown recession followed.

The slowdown that started in 1984 was followed by a healthy rebound while the one that began in 1990 was a prelude to the country's most recent recession.

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