by David Wessel
There is no doubt where the economy is now. "By any measure, this downturn represents by far the deepest global recession since the Great Depression," the International Monetary Fund declared Wednesday.
But there's more than the usual uncertainty about where it is going. The key is the U.S. Even though its slice of the world economy is smaller than it once was, it's still huge. The U.S. led the world into the abyss, and it will lead the world economy out of it.
But how fast and when?
The alphabet can help to imagine the possibilities and the path of the economy. There's the letter V: the kind of quick rebound that usually follows a deep recession. Or U: a longer recession and slow recovery. There is L: years of painfully slow growth. And W: a temporary upturn as the economy feels the jolt of fiscal stimulus that quickly wears off. Finally, there's the big D, not the shape but another Great Depression.
With history a guide, consider three starkly different scenarios.
The late Victor Zarnowitz, a student of the business cycle, had a rule: "Deep recessions are almost always followed by steep recoveries." The mild recession of the early 1990s and early 2000s were followed by mild recoveries. But the U.S. economy grew faster than a 6% pace in the four quarters after the deep 1973-75 recession and faster than a 7.75% pace after the even deeper 1980-82 downturn.
"In deep recessions," says Michael Mussa of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, "there is usually a growing sense of gloom as the recession deepens." Then the forces that triggered recession -- say, plunging home prices -- abate. The adrenaline of tax cuts and government spending kicks in. With inventories so lean, the slightest uptick in demand prompts a sharp increase in production, and the natural dynamism of capitalism reasserts itself.
"Experience suggests all of this should work, and I believe it will," Mr. Mussa predicts. Governments have administered huge doses of fiscal and monetary stimulus. Home-building and car-buying are so low they can't fall much further. Many consumers shy away from buying because they're frightened, not broke, and that state of mind can change quickly and liberate pent-up demand.
But the Federal Reserve caused the deep recessions of the 1970s and 1980s when it put its foot on the brake to stop inflation; it ended them when it let up. This time, Fed has its foot to the floor and the economy is still slowing. And so much stock-market and housing wealth has evaporated that a quick turn in consumer spirits seems unlikely. Plus, the repair of the banks remains far from complete, restraining lending.
The odds of the V: 15%.
The Big D
If one asked a roomful of economists two years ago to put odds on a repeat of the Great Depression, nearly all would have said zero. In early March, The Wall Street Journal posed the question to about 50 forecasters -- defining depression as a decline in output per person of more than 10%, four times worse than the decline the IMF anticipates. On average, they put odds at one in seven; several put them above one in four.
"This is a Depression-sized event," says economic historian Barry Eichengreen of the University of California at Berkeley, citing the global decline in industrial production and world trade. The big difference: In 1929, governments dithered, or worse. In 2009, they've rushed to the rescue.
To go from today's deep recession to a depression something would have to go wrong. It could be a financial catastrophe on the scale of last fall's bankruptcy by Lehman Brothers or another panic-inducing event. Or a crash in the dollar, one that forces interest rates up at just the wrong moment. Or it could be political gridlock that stops governments in the U.S. or Europe from spending enough to fix the banks before a big one fails, or keeps them for doing more on the fiscal or monetary fronts as the economy deteriorates.
Or it could be virulent deflation that pulls down prices and incomes, making debts, which don't fall when prices do, a heavier burden. The textbook remedy is easy money and big government deficits. But so much of that has been tried it's easy to question its efficacy or to imagine resistance around the world to doing.
The odds of the big D: 20%.
For a decade after its stock market and real-estate bubble burst in 1990, Japan bumped along at an annual growth of just 0.5%. It was dubbed the Lost Decade, and it could happen here. The recession ends but the economy plods along, growing too slowly to bring down unemployment for years.
As the IMF observed this week, recoveries following recession caused by financial crises are "typically slower." Those following recessions that occur simultaneously across the globe "have typically been weak." Back in the 1990s, as U.S. banks struggled, the Fed talked a lot about "financial headwinds." Those were zephyrs compared to the gale-force winds that the economy confronts today.
If financial markets stabilize but don't improve steadily, or if housing prices continue to drift down, or if confidence remains shaky, the U.S. economy could languish for a time. American consumers, once known for spending in the face of prosperity or adversity, could finally decide to prepare for retirement by saving more, having just learned that neither 401(k) retirement accounts nor home values rise inexorably. And the U.S. can't count on increasing exports, the solution when emerging-market economies run into financial trouble and the reason Japan didn't do even worse in the 1990s. The rest of the world is in no shape to buy.
An unfolding depression could scare Congress to act boldly, but the L is less ominous -- and perhaps more likely as a result. There would be months when the economy appeared to be strengthening so the temptation to wait-and-see would be strong.
Put the odds of the L at 55%. That adds to 90%. So put 10% odds on the U, less pleasant than the euphoric V but far less painful than a Lost Decade. That's the rough consensus of economic forecasters; it means U.S. unemployment grows for another year and a half.
Bottom line: The odds favor a long slog.