JOHN BOYD'S ECONOMIC BEAT

JOHN BOYD'S ECONOMIC BEAT

AND NOW, THE TEFLON ECONOMY. The nickname usually reserved for Ronald Reagan, our Teflon president, has now been transferred to the remarkably resilient economy.

Economist David Hale of Kemper Financial Services Inc. recently suggested the economy, like the president, has acquired a non-stick surface that easily sheds mess. He said most evidence points to a fairly strong economy.He applied the moniker before this week's reported drop in February durable goods orders, which generally did not alarm analysts but temporarily pricked a bubble of market concern that the economy was starting to OVERheat and spur inflation.

Then came word that fourth quarter economic growth was even stronger than earlier thought, that the latest consumer price increases were tame and that personal income and spending are rising more than most experts had forecast.

So, despite exchange rate plunges and interest rate spikes last year, despite history's worst stock market crash and a sharp slowdown in money growth, despite problems with some big banks and thrifts, the economic engine seems to hum beneath a protective coating. Mr. Hale spoke of an unstoppable economy, with surprising resilience.

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RAILCAR LOADINGS show just no evidence of a slowing economy at all, said Frank Wilner of the Association of American Railroads.

Loadings are even stronger than in early March against 1987 levels, and the strength is broad-based. Coal shipments have kept rising, instead of slackening once fears of a coal strike abated, he said. General import loadings are holding up despite price hikes, and exports are increasing. Loadings of ship containers and truck trailers related to consumer goods continue to be exceptionally strong, Mr. Wilner said.

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SOME WORRIES REMAIN. Federal Reserve Governor Martha Seger, at times a voice in the wilderness at the Fed, said the drop in durable goods orders confirmed her view that the first quarter could be flat to slightly negative.

Some private analysts also are watching the softness in durable goods orders, car sales and retail activity.

But most analysts and markets have shifted to an alert status for signs of inflation. The alert heightened after a robust February jobs report. Then Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan indicated the falling unemployment rate is nearing a point that could speed up inflation, and a Fed survey of economic conditions cited various price hikes.

The Journal of Commerce's own Industrial Price Index, a reliable leading indicator of consumer inflation, has picked up some in recent weeks, but not sharply. Economist Lawrence Chimerine of the Wefa Group forecasters said inflation worries are overblown, since the economy is not overheating and wages have not escalated sharply.

And, Mr. Hale worried chiefly about the dollar's slump. The dollar should have strengthened on favorable trade figures last week, he said. If it doesn't strengthen on good news, how will it react to bad news? he asked.

Eventually, a falling dollar or inflation fears could force the Fed to boost interest rates.

Then we may see the economy's new coating put to the test.