The recession was supposed to have started already.

Last year, as policymakers steadily raised interest rates to combat the fastest inflation in decades, forecasters began talking as if a recession — economic contraction rather than growth — was not a matter of “if” but “when.” Maybe in 2022. Probably in the first half of 2023. Probably by the end of the year. As recently as December, less than a quarter of economists expected the U.S. to avoid a recession, survey found.

But the year is more than half over, and the recession is nowhere to be found. Not, certainly, in the labor market, as the unemployment rate, at 3.6 percent, hovers near a five-decade low. Not in consumer spending, which continues to grow, nor in corporate profits, which remain robust. Not even in the housing market, the industry that is usually most sensitive to rising interest rates, which has shown signs of stabilization after a downturn last year.

At the same time, inflation has slowed significantly, and appears to be continuing to cool – offering hope that interest rate hikes are nearing an end. All of which is leading economists, after a year spent surprised by the resilience of the recovery, to wonder if a recession is coming at all.

“The chances of a soft landing are higher – there’s no question about that,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at KPMG US, referring to the possibility of lowering inflation without causing an economic downturn. “I’m more optimistic than six months ago: That’s the good news.”

The audience also feels sunnier, although hardly plentiful. Measures of consumer confidence has collected lately, though surveys show that most Americans still expect a recession, or believe the country is already in one.

There’s still a lot that could go wrong, Ms. Swonk noted. Inflation could, once again, prove more stubborn than expected, leading the Federal Reserve to push forward with interest rate increases to curb it. Or, on the other hand, the steps the Fed has already taken could hit with a delay, sharply cooling the economy in a way that has not yet appeared. And even a pre-recession slowdown could be painful, leading to layoffs that are likely to disproportionately hit black and Hispanic workers.

“Soft is in the eye of the beholder,” said Nick Bunker, director of North American economic research at career site Indeed.

Economists are wary of declaring victory prematurely – burned, perhaps, by past episodes in which they did just that. In early 2008, for example, a string of positive economic data led some forecasters to conclude that the United States had managed to navigate the subprime mortgage crisis without falling into recession; researchers later concluded that it had already begun.

But for now, at least, talk of worst-case scenarios — runaway inflation that the Fed is struggling to tame, or “stagflation,” in which prices and unemployment rise in tandem — has given way to cautious optimism.

“We’ve seen a huge series of shocks, so I can’t predict what the future will hold,” Lael Brainard, the White House’s chief economic adviser, said in an interview last week. “But so far, the data is very consistent with moderating inflation and a still resilient labor market.”

Economists have become more optimistic for two main reasons.

The first is inflation itself, which has cooled rapidly in recent months. The Consumer Price Index in June was up just 3 percent from a year earlier, compared to a peak of 9 percent last summer. That’s partly a result of factors that are unlikely to recur – no one expects oil prices to keep falling at a rate of 30 percent a year, for example.

But measures of underlying inflation also showed significant progress. Both consumers and businesses seem to expect price increases to return to normal over the next few years, making it less likely that inflation will be embedded in the economy.

Cooling inflation could allow the Fed to continue to slow its campaign of interest rate hikes, or perhaps even stop raising rates altogether earlier than planned. That could reduce the chances that policymakers go too far in their effort to control inflation and end up causing a recession by mistake.

“Things have gone in the direction that you would need for you to get a soft landing,” said Louise Sheiner, a former Fed economist who is now at the Brookings Institution. “It doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed it, but it’s certainly more likely than if inflation was still 7 percent.”

The second reason for optimism was the gradual cooling of the labor market from a rolling boil to a strong boil.

The rapid reopening of the economy in 2021 caused a huge imbalance between supply and demand: restaurants, hotels, airlines and other businesses suddenly had hundreds of thousands of jobs to fill, and not enough people to fill them. For workers, it was a rare moment of leverage, resulting in the fastest wage growth in decades. But economists worried that those rapid gains could make it harder to get inflation under control.

In recent months, however, the frenzy has subsided. Employers don’t post as many jobs. Employees do not jump from job to job as freely in search of higher pay. At the same time, millions of workers joined or joined the labor force, helping to alleviate the labor shortage.

So far, however, that easing has occurred without a significant increase in unemployment. The unemployment rate is about where it was in the strong labor market that preceded the pandemic. Some industries, such as technology and finance, laid off employees, but most of those workers found other jobs relatively quickly.

“Labor market overheating is coming down a lot, to levels where it’s no longer so worrisome,” said Jan Hatzius, chief economist at Goldman Sachs.

Mr. Hatzius, who has long been more optimistic about the prospects for a soft landing than many of his peers on Wall Street, on Monday lowered his estimated probability of a recession to 20 percent from 25 percent. He said that the recent progress in inflation and the labor market – as well as in consumer spending and other areas – suggests that the economy is gradually overcoming the disruptions of recent years.

“We are seeing the other side of the pandemic,” he said. “The pandemic has created this enormous turbulence in economies, and now I think it’s going to go away, and for me that’s the overriding issue.”

However, many economists are less sanguine. Inflation, at least excluding volatile food and energy prices, remains well above the Fed’s 2 percent annual target, at 4.8 percent in June. And while the progress on inflation so far may have been relatively harmless, there’s no guarantee that will last — employers who initially responded to higher interest rates by hiring fewer workers may soon start cutting jobs outright.

“People who are doing victory laps by declaring a soft landing, I think, are premature,” said Laurence M. Ball, an economist at Johns Hopkins who last year wrote influential paper concluding that it would be difficult for the Fed to get inflation back to 2 percent without a significant increase in unemployment.

Part of the problem is that the Fed has little margin for error. Act too aggressively to tame inflation, and the central bank could push the economy into recession. Do too little, and inflation could rebound — forcing policymakers to pull back.

Neil Dutta, head of economic research at Renaissance Macro, says he worries the strong labor market will fuel a new boost in the economy, leading to a resumption of rapid price increases – an “inflationary burst” that reverses much of the recent progress.

“The next three to six months, the inflation dynamics will look pretty good – it will feel like a soft landing,” he added. “The question is, what comes next?”

Then there are the factors beyond the control of policy makers. Oil prices, which soared last year when Russia invaded Ukraine, could do so again. Food prices could also start to rise again – a possibility that became more real this week when Russia scrapped a deal to allow Ukraine to export grain to the Black Sea.

With the economy already slowing, even relatively small developments — like the looming restart of student loan payments that will strain the finances of many younger adults in particular — could be enough to derail the recovery, said Jay Bryson, chief economist for Wells Fargo.

“The student loan is not enough by itself to cause a recession, but if you do have a downturn, it could be a kind of death by a thousand paper cuts,” he said.

Mr Bryson still expects a recession to start this year. But he has become less certain over the past few months. He recently asked the nearly 20 people on his team to write down how likely they thought a recession was in the next year. Answers ranged from 30 percent to 65 percent, with an average of exactly 50 percent—coin-flip odds for a soft landing that many people once thought impossible.

“Keep the Champagne on ice,” said Mr. Bryson. “Hopefully early next year we can start cracking it.”

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