Economists Finally Agree: We’ve Been in a Recession Since January

For at least a year now, ordinary people in the United States (people the press has been referring to as “Main Street”) have known that the economy was starting to slow down at the same time that prices were rising uncomfortably fast.

Now, some economists are finally starting to admit that, yes, the U.S. probably went into recession somewhere around January of 2008. U.S. economic growth is expected to go officially negative by the end of this year, and this negative growth pattern is expected to continue and worsen throughout most of 2009, if not longer, driven by job losses, a continued drop in factory orders, and falling home prices that still have a long way to fall before the housing market stabilizes.

On October 3, the U.S. Labor Department announced that 159,000 jobs were lost in September, much higher than the expected loss of 100,000 jobs. Orders for durable manufactured goods declined by 4%, almost double the 2.5% figure expected by analysts. Even the service sector flat-lined in September, hovering just barely above the 50 point threshold that signals economic growth.

Although the House of Representatives finally did pass the $700 billion credit market rescue package on October 3rd, by the time the bill was at last on its way to the White House for the President Bush’s signature, that same credit crisis had already pushed the State of California into a $7 billion budget shortfall, with the real possibility of not being able to meet payroll this month, and the State of New York into a shortfall of $1.6 billion, expected to worsen next year. California may have to turn to the Federal Reserve to borrow if credit isn’t available by the end of October or else face a total shut down of state government.

It is not at all unusual for economists to declare a recession in retrospect or for consumers to feel the recessionary effects before the experts do. This is partly because economists have varying criteria for labeling an economic slowdown recessionary (two consecutive quarters of negative growth is just one rule-of-thumb) and partly because it takes awhile to accumulate enough data to analyze and declare a trend. So often the effects of a recession are felt long before it is formally announced.

However, this time the economic trouble feels like it runs much deeper; and the unease accompanying the acknowledgment of this trouble feels closer to panic. While caution is almost certainly wise at times like these (Why create panic if taking care with words can restore calm?), it is also true that, at every step of this current economic crisis, experts have erred on the side of minimizing the depth of the turn-down. With each new catastrophe, someone important was out in front of cameras declaring that the housing market was bottoming out and the economy was about to turn around. Each catastrophe was expected to be the last. Until the next catastrophe. The phrase “a river in Egypt” springs to mind.

Eventually, the public quit believing the experts. Soon the public ignored the experts entirely, believing instead that positive spin was all that was really available from such persons: the hard truth was to be found instead in the price of milk, the number of overdrafts in a personal checking account, a declining 401(k) balance marked with a red double-digit loss percentage. Let the experts spin until they puked: the truth is that when the money is gone a week before payday arrives, you don’t need an expert to explain that times are getting tough.

By the time Henry Paulson and a seemingly exhausted, sincerely frightened Ben Bernanke went before Congress (was it really only a couple weeks ago?) with their request for $700 billion right now and a prohibition on any oversight or prosecution, it seemed obvious to all that Wall Street’s unending font of optimism had very suddenly run dry. Wall Street seemed to learn what Main Street had known all year in the space of only a few days. How can that be? Lots of people were asking themselves this same question, all at the same time.

All of which brings me to the current situation and the grotesque chasm that seems to have opened up overnight to separate the folks on Wall Street from the folks on Main Street and to separate Main Street from its supposedly representative democracy. To paraphrase the famous line from Cool Hand Luke, what we have here is not just “…a failure to communicate,” but rather a total breakdown in trust.

So what are we looking at here? A recession similar to the recession of the early 90’s with a light at the end of an admittedly dark tunnel? Or are we instead, as New York Times op-ed columnist and economist Paul Krugman says, truly on “The Edge of the Abyss”?

If you ask Wall Street that question today, you may or may not get an answer that spins. There comes a time when all that is left for anyone to do is breathe and pray and cross their fingers.

If you ask Main Street this question today, you will probably get an earful.

It won’t be pretty.

Neither will the year ahead. Or the one after that. Let’s hope our new leadership has a strong spine and a better plan. We’ll all be needing both.

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