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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The only thing we have to fear... is a massive crisis of confidence...

A news story and an op-ed from today's WSJ provide an important reality check for all Americans today, I believe:

First, the news item, under the headline: "Recession? Not so Fast, Say Some... Despite Pain, Economists begin Dialing back Dire Forecasts" (subscription still required) some excerpts:

A funny thing happened to the economy on its way to recession: It's taken a detour.

That, at least, is the view of a growing number of economists -- including some who not long ago were saying a recession was all but inevitable. They note that stock and credit markets have steadily improved since the Federal Reserve intervened to keep Bear Stearns Cos. from bankruptcy in early March, while a series of economic reports have been stronger than expected.

* * *

"A couple months ago it seemed like we were on the abyss," said Jay Bryson, global economist with Wachovia Corp., referring to the seizing up of credit markets and the collapse of Bear Stearns. "Things have changed....The numbers we've seen recently haven't been as bad as we were led to believe just a few months ago."

Wachovia now puts the odds of recession at 45%, down from 90% in April, and expects growth in gross domestic product of 0.6% at an annual rate in the first and second quarters of this year, followed by 1.2% growth in the third and fourth quarters. While he doesn't expect a recession, he says growth will be very weak through next year.
Second, the op-ed, from Zachary Karabell of River Twice Research under the headline: "Who Stole the American Spirit":

This picture is appropriate, over the caption: "What really bad times look like":
There is no denying that the current financial morass is deep and painful. But taking the long view, there is something both startling and disturbing about the gloom that has settled over Wall Street and the country in general. In fact, looking back over the past century, it would be a stretch to rank the current problems as especially notable or dramatic. Something else is going on – namely a cultural rut of pessimism that is draining our collective energy, blinding us to possibilities, and eroding our position in the world.

Right now we have an unemployment rate of 5% and headline inflation topping 4%. We have economic growth of 0.6%, extremely low consumer confidence and weakening consumer spending, small business optimism at a 28-year low, and of course a housing market that is showing declines in excess of 20% in some parts of the country.

These are hardly statistics to celebrate, but they are a far cry from the crises of the 20th century. Next time someone compares the present to the Great Depression, stop them. Between 1929 and 1932, the Dow Jones index went to 41.22 from 380.33, a decline of 89%. Today's hang-wringing about a 20% decline in the major indices (much of it since recouped) doesn't come close.

The unemployment rate in 1933 was 24.9%; seven years later, after the intensive efforts of the New Deal, it stood at 14.6%. Even adjusting for changed methodology since then, today's jobless situation hardly compares. While the recent collapse of Bear Stearns shocked Wall Street, in 1933 alone 4,000 banks failed, and millions not only lost their homes but were rendered homeless.

It is also common today to hear comparisons to the stagflation and grim economy of the 1970s. Here too perspective is in order.

For all the present talk of volatility, in 1973 and 1974 the economy expanded 10% in the first quarter of 1973, contracted 2.1% in the third quarter, went up 3.9% in the fourth quarter, went down 3.4% in the first quarter of 1974, then up 1.2% in the second quarter – continuing like a bouncing ball for another year.

The unemployment rate went from 4.9% in 1973 to 8.5% in 1977, and then nearly broke 10% in 1982. Meanwhile the stock market went from 1067 in January 1973 to 570 in December 1974, a drop of 46%. And there was double-digit inflation and a sharp rise in the price of oil, which represented a higher percentage of consumer spending than today.

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