Administration analysts, and most private economists , have believed that the nation will be able to avoid a deep prolonged recession because businesses have kept a careful rein on their inventories over the last four years.
Now, however, officials such a Federal Reserve Chairman G. William Miller are concerned that companies are again embarking on an excess accumulation of inventories that if not checked, could trigger a recession.
Thomas C. Graham, president of Jones and Laughlin Steel Corp., said that his customers are scrambling to buy steel much as they did before the last recession.
Graham said, in an interview, that his company has an order backlog of 2.2 million tons, bigger than it was before the 1974 slump when companies were burned badly.
Caught up in the midst of a boom that seemed endless and troubled by an inflation that relentlessly pushed up the costs of the goods they purchased, businesses added to their inventories at a rate that far outstripped their sales.
Companies bought and hoarded steel, aluminum, chemicals and hundreds of other products, supplies became tight and companies often placed identical orders with two different suppliers to ensure that they had the products they neede.
Then the bubble burst. Orders were canceled left and right. Companies worked off excess inventories, factories closed and unemployment mounted. By October 1974, the nation was in the middle of its worst recession since the Great Depression and before it was over unemployment climbed to 9 percent.
After that experience, businessmen played things much closer to the vest, keeping inventories under control and in alignment with actual sales.
But, Grham said, the recent boom in the steel business-which ahs pushed profits back to 1974 levels-seems to be due in part to a return to the 1974 scenario.
And while Graham's newly merged firm-J and L's parent LTV Corp. last year bought Lykes which owned Youngstown Sheet and Tube-is doing well today, he admits to being "scared" that J and L and the rest of the industry will face a repeat of 1974.
Graham said at least five factors have contributed to the upsurge in steel orders and shipments:
The severe winter that struck the Chicago area, the nation's most importat steelmaking region, sharply curtailed steel production. Customers are hustling to replace the steel they could not get in January and early February.
The sharp decline in imported steel, caused in part by the high minimum prices set by the U.S. Treasury to take effect Jan. 1.
"The inordinate inflationary psychology" that hits both business and consumers. "It's better to hold steel" then money because of inflation, Graham said.
A shrinking ability of the nation's steel producers to make coke, a necessary ingredient in the steel making process. Graham said the environmental regulations are forcing steel makes to close down or expensively refit coke ovens. "We imported no coke in forced to buy 12 million tons," he said. He added that if the Japanese and European steel industries bounce back, "they won't have the coke to export. The major steel users know this and are buying steel now.
The threat of a September auto strike has major automakers buying huge quantities of steel now so there will be many cars on deal lots by September.