In February, I wrote a column titled “Calm Down: No Recession.” While I am still technically correct, there is no doubt that the construction materials segment of our economy is mired in the deepest downturn since the recession of the mid-1970s. And by next year, it could be the worst since the Great Depression.
Yet so far, we have not crossed the threshold into a national recession, at least according to the common definition, which is two quarters of negative gross domestic product growth.
How can this be? A full year into the miserable journey of the credit crisis, the economy and financial markets have come to a crossroads, beyond which lay several possible destinations. None of them are pleasant.
Despite bank losses of $400 billion, a crumbling housing market, and oil prices that shook the economy hard when they hit $145 a barrel, there have been some offsetting bright spots. Federal tax rebate checks have supported consumer spending, which drives 70% of the U.S. economy. But that economic caffeine jolt is already fading.
A resilient export sector, driven by a weak dollar that makes U.S. goods cheaper and more competitive overseas, has also kept the economy going and lifted the profits of many multinational corporations. But several big overseas economies are now starting to feel recessionary pressures of their own, and their appetite for American goods might wane.
What happens after 2008? Here are the four scenarios most economists and analysts are considering.
1 Stagflation – We could witness a return to the economy of the 1970s. Oil and other commodity prices rise relentlessly, spurring inflation not seen in three decades. All the while, growth stays weak, a double dose of misery that crushes corporate profits and stock market returns. Fortunately, the odds of this repeating itself are slim. Inflation is nowhere near as high as in the 1970s and early '80s, when it soared to 14.8%; it was up 5.6% in July.
2 Repeating Japan's Mistake – Some worry the U.S. is following Japan's path of the 1980s and '90s. Like the U.S., Japan had stock and real estate bubbles fueled by easy credit. This resulted in a 10-year downturn for its economy and stock market. But unlike Japan, which waited for years to try to stimulate its economy, the U.S. has responded quickly with rate cuts and stimulus packages and won't hesitate to break out more.
3 A Turnaround Next Year – The thinking here is that we are simply suffering from a mid-cycle slowdown like the one the economy suffered in 1998 when stocks briefly swooned, but the technology bubble quickly went right back to inflating. This might be right, given the fiscal and monetary stimulus flowing through the system. Perhaps banks, emboldened by a wide government safety net, will start lending again to consumers and businesses eager to borrow and get back to a normal life.
One wild card here is the U.S. consumer, the lifeblood of the economy. Though their debts are growing and their inflation-adjusted wages are not, analysts have unsuccessfully predicted a slowdown in their spending for years. A dramatic plunge in oil prices could give them extra incentive to spend.
4 A Repeat of The Past Year – As hard as this is to swallow, this is the likeliest outcome. I know most people haven't enjoyed it, but my advice is to brace for a tough 2009.