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Profile of a (maybe) recession

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Housing's fallout

Still, the housing downturn has not only cost lots of construction and banking jobs. Through home-price declines, it's also devouring trillions of dollars in consumer wealth – which in recent years had been a source of cash through home-equity loans and "cash-out" refinancing of mortgages.

That could make it hard for the economy to enter a strong growth phase.

"The second half [of this year] will not be a return to normal, and neither will 2009, basically because the consumer who was the driving force is going to be sitting on sidelines," Leamer predicts.

The crunch doesn't affect everyone equally. Some families are hard-hit by mortgage rate resets for example, while millions of others are renters or people who own homes without a mortgage.

But housing troubles could make it hard for consumers overall to spend a lot more, even if they don't dramatically cut spending.

Hence the uncertainty: Will this even end up as a recession?

A panel of economists is watching what happens now, and will ultimately have to make that call.

Members of the panel caution against reading too much into the fact that GDP didn't turn negative in the preliminary first-quarter numbers released at the end of April.

"Employment is falling," says Jeffrey Frankel, one of seven members of the business cycle dating committee, an arm of the private National Bureau of Economic Research.

It may be that a recession has simply been postponed, not avoided, he says.

Mr. Frankel, a Harvard University economist, notes that the housing slump is one of several forces buffeting consumers.

Other negatives:

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