Truthout, December 5, 2006
As we approach the end of 2006, the economy's prospects for next year appear more gloomy with each new piece of economic data. And, just like President Bush in his assessment of the situation in Iraq, the economic forecasters are gradually revising their forecasts downward, as it no longer appears credible to present the rosy pictures that they had been trying to sell.
The trouble began early in the year, when the housing boom that was supposed to continue forever turned into a housing bust. The rate of house price appreciation didn't just slow, as most economists predicted, nor did prices simply flatten in accordance with their revised predictions. House prices began to fall. Nationwide, house prices are now down between 1 percent and 2 percent from their levels at the same point in 2005. (The decline is between 4 percent and 5 percent, if we adjust for inflation.) The price declines in some of the most over-valued areas, like Washington, DC, and parts of Florida and California, have been considerably sharper.
In fact, the price declines are even larger than is shown in the data, because sellers now routinely make payments that are not captured in the contracted price, such as picking up some of the buyer's closing costs or making repairs to the house before the sale. Such practices were unheard of a year ago.
When the downturn in the housing market could no longer be denied, the economic forecasters assured us that the rest of the economy would remain strong. They noted the strength in non-residential construction, strong investment in equipment and software, and of course the resilience of consumers.
This picture is not panning out well either. The non-residential sector experienced a short boom earlier in the year. This should not have been a surprise. The housing boom pulled resources (workers and construction materials) away from the non-residential sector. In some of the areas with the most over-heated housing markets, it wasn't possible to get the workers needed to build stores, offices or other non-residential structures. This meant that when demand in the residential sector eased, resources could switch to meet the pent-up demand in the non-residential sector.
But, it was predictable that this boom would be short-lived. The residential sector is twice as large as the non-residential sector. And there just is not that much pent-up demand. There was serious overbuilding in the office and retail sectors in the late-90s boom, and the continued decline in manufacturing means demand for factory construction is limited. According to the most recent data, construction in the non-residential sector was already falling off by the end of the third quarter.
The boom in equipment and software investment also seems to have disappeared. The latest numbers in this sector have been negative also, suggesting that investment will be at best a very small positive in the economy in the next year.
This leaves us with our resilient consumer. The economic forecasters assure us that strong job growth, coupled with healthy wage growth and falling gas prices, will give consumers the money they need to keep spending.
Well this story does not look very good either. Job growth has actually been slowing over the course of the year, with the private sector adding less than 100,000 jobs on average for the last two months. Falling gas prices are a positive, but since no one had expected gas prices to soar to $3 a gallon, the fact that prices have fallen back to last year's levels does not give consumers that much of a boost. Finally, we are looking at modest real wage growth (at 1 percent annually), but this is not extraordinary and not enough to provide a very large boost to demand.
The more important part of the story for consumers is that they are losing the ability to borrow against their homes. Last year, consumers pulled more than $800 billion in equity out of their homes. Many people bought their homes with little or no money down, and then borrowed against their equity as quickly as their house price rose. Now that house prices have turned down, they have no further equity against which to borrow. This means that these consumers have no choice but to curtail their consumption.
The evidence for this falloff is spreading by the day. Projections of weak holiday sales and slumping car sales top the list. Throw in the reports of rapidly rising rates of mortgage delinquencies and defaults and you get a clear picture of rapidly growing distress.
Of course, with all sources of demand showing weakness, job growth will slump further, and we'll get our classic downward spiral: declining employment, falling income, falling consumption, and then further job loss. The story is not pretty, but unfortunately there is no way to prevent it. This downturn will be especially painful because it is associated with a crash of the housing bubble. This means both that many people will lose their life's savings and also that the recession is likely to be longer lasting than most.
The picture would not have been so dire if economists had been better able to do their job. Unfortunately, economic forecasters seem more interested in happy talk than economic analysis. Not one of the "Blue-Chip 50" forecasters saw the 2001 recession coming. The record seems no better this time around.
Unfortunately, no one ever holds the forecasters accountable. Even though they all missed the last recession, and just about all of them will have missed this recession, the same group will probably still be around to miss the next recession. Some workers, like dishwashers and custodians, teachers and truck drivers, have to meet performance standards. Economic forecasters apparently just have to show up to collect their paychecks.
Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer (www.conservativenannystate.org). He also has a blog, "Beat the Press," where he discusses the media's coverage of economic issues. You can find it at the American Prospect's web site.