Thursday, October 30, 2008
AP WASHINGTON: The economy jolted into reverse during the third quarter as consumers cut back on their spending by the biggest amount in 28 years, the strongest signal yet the country has hurtled into recession. The broadest barometer of the nation's economic health, gross domestic product, shrank at a 0.3 percent annual rate in the July-September quarter, the Commerce Department reported Thursday. It marked the worst showing since the economy contracted at a 1.4 percent pace in the third quarter of 2001, when the nation was suffering through its last recession. The latest GDP reading marked a rapid loss of traction for the economy, which logged growth of 2.8 percent in the second quarter, and is sure to buttress the belief of many economists that the nation is in the throes of a painful downturn.
"No question. We're definitely in a recession. That is just a reality," said Brian Bethune, economist at IHS Global Insight. The White House tried to downplay the significance of the numbers, saying they were not unexpected and caused partly by special circumstances such as hurricanes and a Boeing Co. strike.
"While we continue to face serious challenges, the United States remains the best place to do business, and we're positioned to bounce back," White House press secretary Dana Perino said. The deterioration reflected a sharp retrenchment by consumers, whose spending accounts for the largest chunk of national economic activity. Consumers ratcheted back their spending at a 3.1 percent pace in the third quarter, the most since the second quarter of 1980, when the country was in the grip of recession. GDP measures the value of all goods and services produced within the United States and is the broadest barometer of the country's economic health. While the third-quarter's contraction wasn't as deep as the 0.5 percent annualized decline analysts expected, the poor showing underscored the terrible toll of the housing, credit and financial crises. J. Steven Landefeld, director of the Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis, which puts together the GDP report, didn't use the word "recession" to describe economic conditions but said: "Certainly we are seeing a period of dramatic slowdown."
On Wall Street, however, the smaller-than-expected decline gave some comfort to investors. The Dow Jones industrials were up about 80 points in midday trading. Meanwhile, the Labor Department said Thursday that new claims for jobless benefits for the week ending Oct. 25 stood at a seasonally adjusted 479,000, the same as the previous week and above analysts' estimates of 475,000. Jobless claims above 400,000 are considered a sign of a struggling economy. The grim reports come just days before the nation picks the next president on Nov. 4. Whether Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain wins the White House, the incoming president will inherit a deeply troubled economy and a record-high budget deficit that could cramp his domestic agenda. Many economists believe the economy will continue to contract into next year, which would more than meet a classic definition of recession two straight quarters of shrinking GDP. The National Bureau of Economic Research, the panel of experts that determines when U.S. recessions begin and end, uses a broader definition to determine recessions than two quarters of contracting GDP. That didn't happen in the last recession, in 2001. The NBER takes into account income, employment and other barometers. The finding is usually made well after the fact.
A collapse of the housing market and locked up lending have produced the worst financial crisis to hit the country in more than 70 years. To cushion the fallout, the Fed slashed interest rates on Wednesday by half a percentage point to 1 percent, a level seen only once before in the last half century.Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has warned that the country's economic weakness could last for some time even if the government's unprecedented $700 billion financial bailout package and other steps do succeed in getting financial and credit markets to operate more normally. Unemployment now at 6.1 percent could hit 8 percent or higher next year. Disappearing jobs, battered nest eggs and retirement accounts, and falling home prices are likely to make consumers retrench even more. Underscoring the strain faced by consumers, the report showed that Americans' disposable income fell at an annual rate of 8.7 percent in the third quarter, the largest quarterly drop on records dating back to 1947.
In the third quarter, consumers cut back on purchases of cars, furniture, household appliances, clothes and other things.They pulled back after the bracing impact of the government's tax rebates disappeared. In addition to consumers, businesses cut back sharply in the third quarter. They cut spending on equipment and software at a 5.5 percent pace, the most since the first quarter of 2002, when the economy was struggling to recover from the 2001 recession. Home builders slashed spending at a 19.1 percent pace, marking the 11th straight quarterly cut back, and fresh evidence of the depth of the housing slump. Slower growth for U.S. exports reflecting less demand from overseas buyers who are coping with their own economic problems also factored into the weak GDP report. Exports grew at a 5.9 percent pace in the third quarter, a sharp deceleration from the second quarter's 12.3 percent growth rate. The U.S. economic downturn in the third quarter was accompanied by higher inflation. An inflation gauge tied to the GDP report showed prices excluding food and energy rose at a 2.9 percent pace, up considerably from the 2.2 percent growth rate in the second quarter. Although the new reading is outside the Fed's comfort zone, Fed officials predict the economy's slowdown will damp inflation pressures in the months ahead. The Fed has made clear that its primary mission at the moment is reviving the economy.