From the Wall Street Journal:
Our Economic Dilemma
By MARTIN FELDSTEIN
February 20, 2008; Page A15
Although it is too soon to tell whether the United States has entered a recession, there is mounting evidence that a recession has in fact begun. Key measures of economic activity stopped growing in December and January or actually began to decline. The collapse of house prices and the crisis in the credit markets continue to depress the real economy.
The sharp reduction in the federal funds interest rate and the new fiscal stimulus package may, of course, be enough to avert a downturn. Many forecasters still predict that the economy will just slow in the first part of this year and then rebound after the summer. But the hope that monetary and fiscal policies would prevent continued weakness by boosting consumer confidence was derailed by the recent report that consumer confidence in January collapsed to the lowest level since 1992.
If a recession does occur, it could last longer and be more painful than the past several downturns because of differences in its origin and character. The recessions that began in 1991 and 2001 lasted only eight months from the start of the downturn until the beginning of the recovery. Even the deeper recession of 1981 lasted only 16 months.
But these past recessions were caused by deliberate Federal Reserve policy aimed at reversing a rise in inflation. In those cases, the Fed increased real interest rates until it saw the economic slowdown that it thought would move us back toward price stability. It then reversed course, reducing interest rates and bringing the recession to an end.
In contrast, the real interest rate in 2006 and 2007 stayed at a relatively low level of less than 3%. A key cause of the present slowdown and potential recession was not a tightening of monetary policy but the bursting of the house-price bubble after six years of exceptionally rapid house-price increases. The Fed therefore will not be able to end the recession as it did previous ones by turning off a tight monetary policy.
The unprecedented national fall in house prices is reducing household wealth and therefore consumer spending. House prices are down 10% from the 2006 high and are likely to fall at least another 10%. Each 10% decline cuts household wealth by about $2 trillion, and this eventually reduces annual consumer spending by about $100 billion. No one can predict the extent to which the coming fall in house prices will lead to defaults and foreclosures, driving house prices and wealth down even further. Falling house prices also discourage home building, with housing starts down 38% over the past 12 months.
But the principle cause for concern today is the paralysis of the credit markets. Credit is always key to the expansion of the economy. The collapse of confidence in credit markets is now preventing that necessary extension of credit. The decline of credit creation includes not only the banks but also the bond markets, hedge funds, insurance companies and mutual funds. Securitization, leveraged buyouts and credit insurance have also atrophied.
The dysfunctional character of the credit markets means that a Fed policy of reducing interest rates cannot be as effective in stimulating the economy as it has been in the past. Monetary policy may simply lack traction in the current credit environment.