Odds are "about even" that the U.S. will suffer a short, mild recession this year, with inflation and interest rates still rising, the Bank of America -- largest in the country -- forecast yesterday.
The bank said it was possible that, "with a little luck," actual negative rates in economic growth -- the technical definition of a recession -- might be avoided.
But the essential forecast -- in sharp contrast to the Carter Administration's hopes and projections -- is that the economy will slow to a walk by mid-year, and that its targets for wages and prices will be exceeded.
At a press conference here, the executive vice president and chief economist for the bank, Walter E. Hoadley, stressed that the United States is turning into a "two-tiered economy," with weakness in the Northeast, and something near full employment in the southern Sun Belt and in the West.
This disparity, he told reporters, calls for more attention to regional problems, with less reliance on the part of Washington officials on measures to pump up the economy "with macro-monetary methods."
Hoadley said that the U.S. economy's chief problem is the "intractable" level of inflation which has forced interest rates to record levels. Hoadley predicted that interest rates would continue to rise through the middle of this year, bringing the banks' prime lending rate (to best customers) "into the 12s." The rate is now 11 3/4 percent, within 1/4 percent of the all-time high.
Hadley said that any decline in interest rates after they reach a peak some time this year will be only moderate, because the public's expectation that inflation will be high "is also expected to continue for some time."
The bank official -- one-time Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia -- predicted that "we'll be lucky to see interest rates break down through 8 percent toward 7 percent."
In a later conversation, Hoadley said that if the prime interest rate sticks in the 7 to 8 per cent range, it would have grim consequences for the economy.
"It would be bad for investment, bad for the stock market, and cause revisions in the whole (area of) financing for business. You could say that the era of cheap money would be gon," he said.
Hoadley said that many investors "are on the sidelines expecting long-term rates to come down, but if we don't turn around inflation, long rates will be sticky, and in retrospect, today's long-term rates could look cheap."
The bank's basic assessment is that the real Gross National Product this year will grow at a rate of only 1.9 per cent, compared to 3.8 per cent in 1978, with declines of 0.6 per cent and 0.4 per cent respectively in the second and third quarters.
The sluggishness in the U.S. would be the key element in a slight decline from 3.9 per cent to 3.6 per cent in world growth, with the rest of the industrialized world outperforming this country.
"In sum," Hoadley said, "the U.S. economy will still show some growth, but it's out of sync with the rest of the world." John Wilson, vice president of the Bank's economics department, stressed that "being out of sync is not all bad." Because of the better balance in growth rates and international accounts, Wilson said, the possibly of a global recession like the one in 1974-75 will be averted.
According to the bank's analysis, if an actual U.S. recession doesn't happen in 1979, it will be because business firms have been able to control the inventory excesses of prior years, and because housing has been assured access -- at a high price -- to a reasonable flow of mortgage money.
The Bank's forecast, like most private projections, calls for a substantial reduction in the U.S. deficits in trade and in the current (trade and services) accounts for 1979. And Hoadley praised the Nov. 1, 1978, dollar support program for having introduced "an amount of needed uncertainty in exchange markets" so that speculators don't have an assured one-way bet against the dollar.
But he said that "the dollar is a treacherous commodity to deal with." One the one had, it has been heavily "oversold," which means that it can move up briskly on a single piece of "good information."
On the other hand, he reported from personal conversations that Europeans are still dubious about the success of the Carter Administration's energy and price programs. He predicted a fairly steady dollar, with "intermittent" changes for the first half of this year. Then, "it depends on how the Administration deals with the fundamentals of the economy.
Details of the bank's forecast for the world economy were as follows:
In Western Europe, a more expansive set of policies would yield a growth rate of 3.1 per cent in 1979, up from 2.5 per cent in 1978, with inflation virtually unchanged at 7.5 per cent.
Supply problems and "widespread misallocation of resources" would lead to economic shortfalls in Eastern Europe and the Societ Union. In addition, the Communist economies face difficult balance of payments problems.
The Middle East economic boom is "over" according to Bank economist Wilson. Economic growth will reach a plateau in 1979, and the OPEC surplus will be down to about $20 billion.
In Asia, Japan's economy will again grow at about 5.5 per cent, but with the advance led more by the internal economy and less by exports. Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore are expected to gradually replace Japan in the manufacture of basic steel, chemicals, and other relatively unsophisticated producer goods.
As a result of its persistent decline, the traditional role of the dollar as the world's key currency is "threatened." But the Bank said it is "unlikely" that the European Monetary System will be able to impose monetary stability. The EMS "may eventually break down just as similar, previous agreements have," the Bank said.