Profile of a (maybe) recession
Some analysts think the slowdown may be confined largely to the housing market.
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•Energy and food prices have soared.Skip to next paragraph
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•Bank credit conditions are tightening.
•The lost housing wealth not only crimps access to home-equity loans, but it also adds pressure on workers to save for retirement. The house is no longer as big of a nest egg.
"There's every reason to think that the household is going to have to cut back on consumption," Frankel says.
Still, he says it's conceivable that a recession could be avoided.
"We're very cautious and wait until everything is finished," before deciding that a recession began in a certain month, he says.
What might balance all the negative forces?
The natural tendency of the economy is to grow, as businesses invest in new ventures, banks make loans, and consumers spend. Recessions often happen when several major obstacles arise at once – a policy mistake by the Federal Reserve, a "shock" such as a spike in oil prices, or imbalances such as a run-up in product inventories.
In the current cycle, the big imbalance in the domestic economy centered on housing. Homebuilders are correcting by retrenching rapidly, but inventories of for-sale homes remain large.
Some economists also say the Fed made a mistake of waiting too long to boost interest rates as a "bubble" began to build in home prices – a bubble that was biggest in coastal and Sun Belt markets.
But in recent months, the Fed has responded vigorously to the threat of recession, cutting interest rates and extending loans to help banks weather hard times. Congress and President Bush also moved quickly to stimulate the economy with fiscal policy – tax rebate checks that are starting to arrive this month.
The policy response could help the economy skate through much of the year without a declining quarter for GDP.
An economy on edge
Often, a shorthand definition of recession is two quarters where GDP falls. The National Bureau's business cycle dating committee doesn't have such a specific criteria. On its website, the group says there must be a "a significant decline in economic activity" for more than a few months, visible in several indicators beyond just GDP.
Right now, those indicators show an economy on the edge.
A comparison of activity levels now with three months before show that three indicators declined, while two others are up. GDP, measured quarterly, is rising at a 0.6 percent annual rate. The amount of inflation-adjusted income in the economy is also rising. (But in a worrisome counterpoint, average non-supervisory wages haven't been keeping pace with inflation over the past year.)
Employment, industrial production, retail sales all show declines.
Jobs often hold the key. So far, the labor market hasn't deteriorated as sharply as it has heading into past recessions, but the trend also doesn't look encouraging. A weak job market has contributed to recent declines in consumer confidence. The continuing run-up in oil prices is also hammering consumers. It acts like a tax, as energy expenses leave people with less to spend elsewhere in the economy.
And housing remains a great source of uncertainty.
Like all typical housing cycles, the current one involves big swings in home construction and home sales. The decline in home sales this time looks similar to what happened back in 1990 and 1991, for example.
But it's unusual to see such a sharp plunge in prices. "Everything hinges on what's going to happen to house prices," Martin Feldstein, another Harvard economist who sits on the dating committee, said recently in a Bloomberg TV interview.
Property values need to adjust to balance supply and demand. But banks and consumers could be hit harder, he says, if prices "spiral down … into an overshoot position."