Fifteen million a year forever.

No, that is not what the New York Yankees have offered baseball's hottest free agent. It is the U.S. auto industry's mantra as its economic seers forecast that manufacturers will sell more than 15 million cars, minivans, sport/utility vehicles and pickup trucks in 1999 for the fifth time in the last six years.

When light vehicle sales from Canada, the United States and Mexico are added, the industry sold 17.44 million units last year in North America, a performance second only to 1986's 17.8 million cars and trucks.

Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve Board chairman who engineered three interest rate cuts between the end of September and mid-November, draws kudos for his navigation skills.

"I think he has found the key to at least reducing the severity and frequency of economic cycles," says Van Bussmann, corporate economist for DaimlerChrysler AG. Mr. Bussmann forecasts U.S. light vehicle sales at 14.8 million for 1999, a relative pessimist among his peers.

As recently as September, doomsayers were poised to declare the next recession was here. Wall Street was in a funk. Economists were forecasting a prolonged bear market. Luxury car sales were going to fall.

Someone forgot to tell Joe and Mary Consumer. They kept spending. October new car and truck sales spurted to an annual rate of 16.6 million vehicles.

What gives?

"First of all, you've got low interest rates, trade-in values are on the upswing again, and prices of new cars are holding steady," says Diane Swonk, deputy chief economist with Bank One Corp. in Chicago. "On top of that, we've got the strongest wage gains in 30 years in our pockets."

So if our mutual funds and electronic trading accounts start plummeting again, as they did in late summer and early fall, it won't mean consumers will stop spending.

"There is a substantial cushion that many people have built up in their net worth," Ms. Swonk says. "Housing markets are still very important in the wealth equation. People still see their house appreciating in value or they have cut their mortgage payments by refinancing."

Can there be too much of a good thing? Might the Fed have been too quick to lower interest rates?

Mustafa Moha-tarem, chief economist for General Motors Corp., says that by making credit more available through lower interest rates, Chairman Green-span has restored consumer confidence and comforted business executives who worried that banks would be more reluctant to make loans. At the same time, the Fed has stimulated the rate at which the money supply is growing. That's part of the reason we saw such a flurry of mergers and acquisitions in November and December.

The danger is that if the money supply continues to grow at the same pace for three or four months, it could rekindle inflation. That could lead the Fed to reverse course sometime in the first quarter and raise interest rates.

"The economy just doesn't need another interest rate cut at this time," says Mr. Mohatarem.

There's not yet sufficient evidence that the industry has transcended its historical feast-or-famine cycles forever, but the length of this particular expansion has been unusual.

"Go back to 1993 or 1994 and remember people were asking when we would see U.S. vehicle sales hit 17.5 million or 18 million," Mr. Mohatarem says. "We never did reach those levels. That's part of the reason we don't see evidence of a recession now."

Is there a dark cloud to swallow up this silver lining? Scary forces are stirring out there in places like Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, even Japan. Can we escape the storm indefinitely?

Quite possibly, yes. Every CEO of a major automaker has preached about the importance of competing in Asia, South America and Eastern Europe in recent years. But when one totals their investments in emerging markets as a percentage of all capital spending, the exposure is small.

For example, Ford Motor Co. still derives more than 90% of its revenue from North America and Western Europe.

"The major risk I see is a domestic policy mistake," says DaimlerChrysler's Mr. Bussmann. "We could be in a position where the Fed starts to tighten credit at the same time we implement a substantial tax increase. I know the Clinton August and September, or a resurgence of currency devaluations that began in July 1997 in Thailand.

"Brazil going under is still a major risk," Ms. Swonk says. "Then having that contagion spread to Mexico. We would definitely feel that."

The harder question to answer is whether we have conquered inflation and entered a mysterious new era of deflation. If so, is that good or bad?

Computer prices keep falling. Self-serve regular gasoline is below $1 and falling. Most 1999 model cars carry sticker prices equal to or slightly lower than their predecessors.

Conversely, home prices, medical care, prescription drugs and ticket prices for movies, plays and sporting events are rising significantly in most urban areas of the U.S. So are wages.

"If you take out the food and energy components, the underlying inflation rate is running at 2.5% and it hasn't changed much since the end of 1997," says Ms. Hughes-Cromwick of Ford.

The short answer is no, deflation has not taken root to the degree that personal incomes are threatened.

The future would be even brighter if there were more evidence that the struggling economies of Asia, especially Japan, were closer to a turnaround.

"The Japanese government's $500 billion financial rescue package is not really enough to correct all their bad loan problems," says DaimlerChrysler's Mr. Bussmann. "The key is to reduce taxes enough to get the consumer involved in spending money again."

Mr. Mohatarem of GM is encouraged by government economic policies in Korea and Thailand.

"You will see another two or three months when they are floating along the bottom, then you will see a significant recovery in Korea and Thailand," he says.

Then there is China, where the economy continues to grow, although much slower than during the boom years of the early 1990s. The Beijing government keeps reassuring financial markets that it will not devalue the renminbi, China's unit of currency. Even so, investors worry that growing unemployment, caused partially by lower demand for Chinese-made products from the rest of Asia, and partially by more competitive wage rates in the rest of Asia, may force some type of adjustment.

"I wouldn't be surprised if they pegged the renminbi to a basket of other currencies, and that could result in an effective devaluation of about 5% to 10%," says Mr. Bussmann. "It would be better if they didn't do anything, but a 5% to 10% change would not set off a whole new round of devaluations."