A growing number of economists are predicting the sluggish U.S. economy will slide into recession later this year in the wake of this month's jump in oil prices.

Although there is no evidence thus far of a serious nationwide economic downturn, and economists' forebodings of a recession are far from unanimous, the level of pessimism is on the rise. Economists who don't anticipate a recession tend to see the economy gripped by "stagflation" -- the 1970s term for a damaging combination of low growth and rising prices.

Economists for such firms as Shearson Lehman Hutton Inc., DRI/McGraw-Hill and Laurence H. Meyer and Associates are predicting a recession will begin in the fourth quarter. Some say a downturn has already begun. IBJ Schroder Bank and Trust Co. forecast that real gross national product will fall 1.7 percent this quarter and 1.2 percent in the fourth.

David Wyss of DRI/McGraw-Hill rated the prospects of a recession as "better than even." A recession isn't underway, he said, but, "we're certainly marching in that direction." He predicted a recession would begin in the fourth quarter but added, "there's a chance the third quarter could be negative."

Lawrence Krohn, senior economist at Shearson Lehman, said his firm believes a recession will get underway by the fourth quarter, when real GNP will fall 2.7 percent, after expanding at an anemic 0.5 percent pace this quarter.

Even before the oil price shock sparked by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, "we probably would have had the economy in a recession anyway," he said, since only exports and consumer demand for services were supporting growth. "The oil shock put us in the recession camp."

Economists predicting a recession say the higher oil prices will cause a retrenchment in consumer spending and business investment at a time when the economy already was struggling.

Robert Gerome, a fellow at the Economics Strategy Institute in Washington, said he believes a recession is underway. "Frankly we are in one. As to how long it lasts, it is tied to the Middle East situation, mostly for psychological reasons."

He said he expected the recession would be "more painful than most people think," with early 1991 saddled with the effects of higher oil prices and, if the Middle East remains unstable, ripple effects felt not only in more expensive oil and higher inflation, but also in consumer caution.

Krohn maintained it is too late for the Federal Reserve to prevent the onset of a recession by cutting short-term interest rates. "It's baked in the cake," he said.

He said the Fed can prevent a recession "from deepening further" if it chooses to ease credit costs aggressively, but he added that course was unlikely because of the outlook for inflation and inflation data even before the oil surge.

Gerome agreed that Fed officials "are in a pickle." Easing monetary policy would spur inflation; tightening would erode growth further.

Prior to the spurt in oil prices, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan indicated he thought the chances of a decline in real GNP were relatively low, although marginally higher than at the beginning of the year.

In a speech earlier this month, however, San Francisco Fed Bank President Robert Parry, who is considered a hawk on inflation, said he could not rule out the possibility that real GNP "might even decline" sometime during the second half.

Bush administration officials have been cautious in their projections for the economy as a result of the oil shock. Officials have estimated real GNP would be reduced by 0.5 to 0.75 percentage point for each $5-per-barrel increase in the price of oil and that consumer prices would be raised 1.0 percentage point over a year. But one administration official said that if the Fed does not ease monetary policy, the prospects of economic growth slipping below a 1 percent rate will increase.

Despite the spreading recession fears, other economists believe the economy will avoid such a downturn, although they also indicate increasing concern about the state of the economy.

"We do not foresee the economy tumbling into recession," economists for Fuji Securities said in a recent newsletter. "However, we do expect it to come uncomfortably close to doing so." Fuji's Fred Sturm rated the odds of a recession at 1 in 4.

Sturm argued that exports, which he described as "the one straw on which the economy is hanging," should remain reasonably strong, particularly to Europe.

William Sullivan, economist at Dean Witter Reynolds, was less pessimistic about the prospects of a recession on the horizon at all, seeing the chances barely higher than 20 percent.

"It is clear that we may have damaged the economy's prospects in a major way, but these higher {oil} prices don't necessarily guarantee a downturn," he said. "It is going to take time to see."

Sullivan cited many positive factors in the U.S. economy that could weigh against recessionary pressures: The declining dollar is spurring U.S. export competitiveness in the world economy and the relative strength of other Western economies should "wash over to support U.S. business activity," he said.

Compared with the previous two oil shocks, in real terms, these higher oil prices are less damaging, he noted, adding that households and business sectors "may prove to be a lot more resilient to higher energy prices than widely assumed, and inventories are extremely lean and mean," providing a cushion against recessionary pressures.

In specific sectors, Sullivan pointed to growth-boosting spurts to military spending and prospects that higher energy prices will aid the energy industries of the Southwest. However, Sullivan said threats to growth remain, with stock market prices falling, long-term interest rates rising and inflation accelerating.

"Stagflation is a high probability. There's four chances in five that we are going to go into a stagflation economy ... It probably is in train already," Sullivan said.

Lou Crandall, an economist at R.H. Wrightson, said a recession is "unlikely," with the economy able to weather an oil price "bouncing around in the 20s" (dollars per barrel). But if the Persian Gulf situation deteriorates and oil remains above $30 a barrel, "you could have a brand new problem," he said.

Crandall said that while the economy has shown resilience in the face of potential blows to consumer confidence from a slump in the housing sector and reports of a credit crunch, "there is a much more direct link in consumers' minds between oil prices and economic output. ... None of us have seen a recession caused that way {housing weakness}, but all of us have seen a recession caused by oil problems," he said.