The game has been the same now for some months, a sort of teasing duel between doomful economists increasingly convinced the U.S. economy is in for a rough tumble, and the nation's business chiefs who won't let go of their optimism.
It was played out again here today at the spring meeting of the Business Council, a select club of about 100 chief executive officers of major corporations. A majority of the council's economic consultants offered their gloomiest forecast yet-the start of a recession next quarter, an inflation rate this year of 9.5 percent and still higher interest rates.
The business chiefs took issue with the forecast, insisting there were few signs of a prolonged downturn in the offing. Consumer demand is still strong, they said, consumer credit remains good, business inventories are under control, and export sales are up. At worst, they said, there'll be a "softening" of the economy.
"We're not as bearish as the technical consultants are," said General Motors Chairman Thomas Murphy. "We think there'll be a slower rate of growth, but there will be growth."
At the same time, the chief executives were clearly worried by two persistent economic nemeses: Inflation and the energy shortage. The consensus among them seemed to be that the Carter administration had made some right moves on both issues and should be given more time to see their policies through.
But in discussions with reporters here, signs of deepening frustrations were apparent.
Reginald Jones, chairman of General Electric, groused about an "inflation psychology" that had taken hold among consumers. Accustomed to inflated prices, people can continue to spend, Jones said, rather than save as they traditionally did. The result is a more active-and more inflationprone-economy.
Exxon Chairman Clifton Garvin blamed the energy crunch in part on gas guzzling consumers. Oil demand, he said, is up 4 percent instead of a normal 2 percent-and this, at a time when supplies are short and inventories are low.
"If the people, say, in Washington made one less trip to the beach, maybe we could get this shortage under control," Garvin remarked. But he added that he didn't think it would happen voluntarily.
GE's Jones repeated his call for a Carter-drafted "blockbuster" program to beat inflation-a program which, Jones said, could affect a range of things from beef imports to interest rates, and most of all, would be dramatic enough to shatter the inflation psychology.
Jones said his plan has failed to catch on with White House officials who seem instead to be following what Jones decribed as a "steady-as-you-go" course.
Several other executives said they regarded this course as prudent. "I'd bet my chips on holding firm with the current policies," said DuPont chairman Irving Shapiro. Said Exxon's Garvin: "Nobody promised anybody here a rose garden.We know we've got to be patient, we've got to give (Carter's) program a chance."
Senior Washington officials, here to address the council, found a sympathetic, if troubled, audience.
Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal said he had received "relatively broad support" here for Carter's decontrol-windfall tax oil plan.
Federal Reserve Chairman G. William Miller said he preferred the executives' more optimistic outlook on the economy to the economists' forecast.
"I don't believe we'll have a recession," he said. "We'll see a slowdown, but the economy is quite balanced."
However, Miller added the energy shortage has increased the risk of a recession.
In any case, all sides seem to be hedging their forecasts-a sign of the high degree of uncertainty prevailing. The economists, though calling for a recession, predicted it would be a mild one-about on the order of the 1969-1970 recession during which real GNP declined a percentage point.
For their part, the chief executives cited indications that an economic slowdown already has begun. "We do see some softenings of demand and some concern on the consumer's part," said Donald Seibert, chairman of J.C. Penney. "There's a greater reaction to the price of some goods and to price-off promotions."
"Said GE's Jones: "You're selling a lot harder out there now. The consumer is really looking for value." CAPTION: Picture, Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal, left, Fed Chairman William Miller and Exxon Chairman Clifton Garvin Jr. AP