You're not alone if you are uneasy about the economy. But are we facing a repeat of 2008?
Some smart people are emailing me to predict a recession this year. They are not cranks with gold in the mattress. Some are saying, “It’s 2008 all over again.”
On the surface, this seems odd considering the slow but remarkable recovery from the Great Recession. At 5 percent, the official civilian unemployment rate is the lowest it has been since the mid-2000s and close to what economists consider full employment. The United States has gained 14 million new jobs since February 2010. None of the predictions of doom from President Obama’s policies have come true. We avoided another depression.
I was among the journalists who wrote about the looming trouble in the mid-2000s. This was not rocket science, for I was a columnist in Phoenix, one of the epicenters of the housing bubble. It was an, ahem, unpopular stance. Today we lack most of the ingredients present then: massive overbuilding, subprime loans, financial hustles of over-leveraged financial institutions, all amid a general weakness of the economy in the 2000s.
When I was younger, I was surrounded by older people who had lived through the Great Depression. It was a trauma that changed their lives and behavior. So it’s natural for those paying attention in our attention-deficit society now to look back at 2008 and shiver. This, even though the recession did not change behavior like the Depression did.
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All is not well.
First, we face the prospect of a recession in China, which would have worldwide consequences. Second is worldwide slow growth and trouble in emerging economies. Next is the European Union’s seeming unending woes. And don’t forget the uncharted territory of the Federal Reserve raising interest rates — most post World War II recessions were accidentally triggered by the Fed (and 1980-81 was deliberately done to kill runaway inflation). Extreme weather will affect the global economy.
In addition, there’s tech stocks and valuations, many wildly overblown, eerily reminiscent of 1999 before the dot-com bust. Commercial real-estate is another potential bubble. A flight to safety has propelled the value of the dollar higher, hurting American manufacturing and exports. This is an aging business cycle by historic standards.
The slowing global economy has slammed commodity prices and producers. This is particularly true of oil prices. In America, cheap gasoline is being offset by the collapse of the (oversold) fracking boom and “energy independence,” with a cascade effect of bankruptcies in the oil patch and defaults on the enormous debt taken out to support fracking. Morgan Stanley predicts oil could hit $20 a barrel, partly based on its ties to the strong dollar.
One can never trust the overly financialized economy. The big banks are much better capitalized now than in 2008. But they and other Wall Street playerz have spent huge sums to weaken the Dodd-Frank regulations. We still lack a Glass-Steagall Act for the 21st century.
Sharply divided politics makes sensible fiscal policy almost impossible. “Austerity” has held back the economy. The potential of infrastructure investments has barely been attempted.
Finally, most Americans are treading water and have been since the late 1990s. Wages are mostly stagnant or even lower. This has been a recovery for 20 percent, “meh” for 80 percent. Widening inequality is not merely bad from a moral and civic standpoint. It means the “consumer economy” has less juice.
So are my correspondents correct? I’d say there’s a 50-50 chance of a recession. It won’t be 2008 redux, but its own special misery.
If it happens, the downturn would likely arrive later in Seattle. If it happens, anybody could become president.