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How deep a recession?

The housing-bubble collapse makes recovery hard to predict.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 21, 2008

Hard times: The 1970s recession saw gas shortages.

AP

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A surge in layoffs, a sharp pullback in consumer spending, and a credit crisis that drags on despite a massive government rescue have prompted some forecasters to predict the worst economic downturn since World War II.

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There's even a flood of commentary harking back to the Great Depression – thankfully not as a forecast but as a cautionary tale for today's policymakers.

But if the US economy doesn't repeat the 1930s, could it revisit conditions last seen in the 1970s or early 1980s? Could it be worse?

The economy's trajectory now, compared with some of those deep recessions, leaves the door open to worse or better outcomes.

The high degree of uncertainty this time stems from the central role played by the fallout from a huge housing-price bubble, which is now buffeting banks and consumers alike. That makes both the depth of the recession and the timing of a recovery hard to predict.

This week, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed below 8000 for the first time in nearly six years, the Federal Reserve downgraded its outlook for the economy next year, predicting the unemployment rate to rise above 7 percent. Just three months ago, the central bank's forecast had said joblessness would stay below 6 percent for much of next year.

"The standard recession [in the past] was caused by the Fed raising interest rates to slow inflation," says Dean Baker, an economist at the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. Today, "the basic story is that it's hard to recover from a recession that's caused by a collapsing bubble."

He says that 2001 is the only other time since World War II that the collapse of an asset-price bubble played the leading role in a recession. In that case it was the stock market, especially shares of Internet-related firms.

A great deal of stock-market wealth was wiped out back then, but the recent housing bubble is dealing a harder blow to the whole economy, shaking the foundations of the banking system and affecting the pocketbooks of more consumers.

In many past recessions, consumers retrench because of inflation, high interest rates, or rising unemployment. But many past recessions followed a "v" shape, with a recovery that was swift as consumers unleashed pent-up demand for goods and businesses hired people again.

This time, although the Fed has cut short-term interest rates as it usually does, economists worry not only about how deep the recession will be but how slow a recovery may be.

Even in 2001, with a smaller shock to the economy, "we kept losing jobs long after the recession ended," Mr. Baker says. While often called a mild slump, "it was actually a very severe recession."

Faced with the prospect of another "jobless recovery," many economists today are calling for a significant new government stimulus package. The financial system bailout effort, including a rescue fund that may reach $700 billion in size, is designed to prevent a 1932-style meltdown of the banking system.

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