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Is a recession in the cards?

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Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Economists' views on the likelihood of a recession are mixed while the Federal Reserve tries to navigate a challenging economic and geopolitical environment.    Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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If a recession is coming soon, the stock market doesn’t seem to be alerting us to that right now.

Federal Reserve Chair Jay Powell didn’t seem to think so either as he announced an interest rate hike Wednesday and took reporters’ questions.

Powell explained what the Federal Open Market Committee is thinking as it starts to gradually — by quarter-point baby steps — raise rates and rein in its previous expansive monetary policy. Fed policymakers hope to dampen demand for goods and services just enough to curb runaway inflation without tipping the economy into a stall. Or worse, another contraction, like we saw (though briefly and disease induced) with the pandemic recession two years ago.

Is the U.S. economy headed for a recession? Economists — as is their wont — are mixed on this question.

On the hawkish side are those who’ve been warning for a while that inflation was getting out of hand. “The Fed has been consistently overly optimistic about inflation coming down, and it’s really behind the curve,” said Peter Morici, a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland.

Because the Fed waited so long and let inflation get so high and pervasive, he said, it’s going to have to do more than raise interest rates a quarter of a percentage point every month or two to slow the economy down.

“We’ve never really had this kind of inflation without causing a recession to bring it under control,” Morici said.

There is a fair amount of skepticism out there that the Fed can effectively navigate the tumultuous global economy and geopolitical situation.   

“Basically, we’re asking the impossible out of the United States Federal Reserve,” said Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at consulting firm RSM.

By expecting the Fed just to cool inflation but not stall growth, he said, that’s well nigh impossible, considering Russia’s war on Ukraine and soaring oil prices. Oh, and “pervasive uncertainty, a pandemic that’s not yet finished, another supply shock — all while we’re having essentially 8% inflation that’s likely to crest above 10%,” Brusuelas said.

He puts the chance of a recession over the next year at 1 in 3 — higher if the war in Ukraine spreads.

Most economists rate the chances of a near-term U.S. recession at significantly less than even odds. That’s despite the outlook for Europe and the global economy continuing to deteriorate.

Eric Freedman, chief investment officer at U.S. Bank, expects an economic slowdown here, but nothing worse.

Though there are risks to that outlook, he said. “A faster tightening of monetary policy by the Federal Reserve that has a spillover effect into the broader economy. Persistently high energy costs and the resultant dampening of consumer and business activity.”

Many economists remain optimistic that the Fed will be able to engineer a so-called soft landing — taming inflation and restraining demand without reversing the economic recovery.

Economic growth will slow this year from the “unsustainable” level it achieved last year, said Dana Peterson, chief economist at The Conference Board. That growth was juiced by COVID vaccinations, the economy reopening, government relief checks and other fiscal stimulus.

“An economy like the U.S. could grow at 2% to 2.5% and be just fine,” she said. That’s the Conference Board’s prediction for next year, which she said would be “quite robust, and that’s also an environment that includes the Fed raising interest rates and also higher inflation in general.”

Dean Baker, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, sees a low risk of recession. Recessions are typically caused by the Fed acting too aggressively or an asset bubble bursting, he said — neither of which he thinks is in the cards right now.

“We’re going into this with a very strong economy, 3.8% unemployment. We will have some choppy waters — the supply chain because of COVID. But none of that translates into a recession.”

Pick your scenario — lose sleep or sleep well — until the next gross domestic product numbers come along.

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