The economic gurus of American industry today painted a gloomy picture of the nation's economy and blamed its "sluggish growth" on the overheated dollar and the soaring trade deficit.
They predicted a slowdown far greater than the administration forecasts that would continue into 1986.
The forecast presented to the Business Council, composed of the top executives of the leading American corporations, saw no recession this year or next, but was "somewhat less optimistic" than projections by the Reagan administration, said James D. Robinson III, who headed the committee that drew up the annual assessment of the economic outlook.
Robinson, chairman of American Express Co., said the report does not indicate the country is on the verge of a "growth recession," defined as economic growth that is so slow that unemployment increases. Preston Martin, vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, warned late last month of the possibility of a growth recession.
And while members of the council gathered here at The Homestead for their biannual meeting hailed the early-morning Senate action in trimming the budget deficit, they said it will take time to bring down the supercharged U.S. dollar, which the economists blamed for the trade deficit.
The report was another dash of cold water on the administration's generally rosy economic forecasts. Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige Monday acknowledged economic growth this year would not reach the 3.9 percent level predicted by the administration.
But he placed the economic growth target for the year at between 3.5 percent and 4 percent, far more optimistic than the forecast presented to the Business Council.
That report, prepared by chief economists of the leading American corporations, predicted growth would amount to 3.1 percent this year and fall to 2.2 percent in 1986.
The report showed the influence of Allen Sinai, chief economist for American Express' Shearson Lehman Brothers, who last month foresaw the country's first economic slowdown led by a soaring foreign trade deficit.
The merchandise trade deficit was a record $107.9 billion last year, and all forecasts look to further increases in 1985.
The business economists saw no improvement in the trade balances until 1986, a prediction challenged by C. Fred Bergsten, director of the Institute for International Economics, who called it "the Achilles heel" of the Business Council's report. Bergsten said his figures show an increasing trade deficit next year.
The report to the Business Council said the trade deficit robs the economy of between $10 billion and $15 billion in growth each quarter.
"The foreign sector is the main contributor to sluggish growth, with exports growing slowly and imports surging," the report said. "The weak trade position has shaved two to three points off the growth rate for the U.S. economy in the last three quarters."
The trade problems are being felt across the full spectrum of the U.S. economy, the report said, "with almost all businesses feeling pressure of prices and market share."
"The trade problem is probably the biggest problem" for America's chemical industry, said Edward G. Jefferson, chairman of E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., one of the business executives at the meeting.
In 1979 and 1980, with a weaker dollar, that industry had a $12 billion to $13 billion trade surplus, while now it runs a deficit.
Despite the trade problems, the report opposed retaliation "except as a last resort." The business economists noted that more companies are moving manufacturing facilities to other countries because of the high dollar and said that protectionist sentiments are rising.
The forecast saw inflation remaining low through 1986, partly because of the slow economic growth, and unemployment remaining above 7 percent.
Meanwhile, the number two man in the Treasury Department, Deputy Secretary Richard Darman, lobbied the business leaders to gain their support for the administration's revised tax reform package, dubbed "Treasury Two."
He declined to reveal any details, however, except to report that it differed in key areas of business concerns from the original Treasury plan. One of these areas is depreciation allowances, which he indicated would be reduced less in the new Treasury proposal than in the original plan.
The business leaders were reported to be "satisfied" with the Darman briefing even though it was short on details.
Darman said the Treasury proposal will go to President Reagan Monday, and Labor Secretary William E. Brock added that the Cabinet would make its recommendations within weeks.