“What a difference a few months can make.”

Those words from Joseph Tracy, an executive vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, refer to last summer’s concerns about a possible recessionary double dip. (As recently as October 2010, Moody’s Analytics Chief Economist Mark Zandi, addressing a crowd at CBIA’s annual meeting, had put the odds of a double dip at one in three—“uncomfortably high,” he said.)

Tracy was speaking at the Economic Summit and Outlook 2011 in Hartford, an annual event sponsored by CBIA and the MetroHartford Alliance. He was joined on a panel by Robert Triest, vice president and economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Research Department, and Nicholas Perna, economic advisor to Webster Financial Corporation.

Chance for Double Dip Now ‘Quite Low’
“There was a lot of concern about whether or not the economy was in just a soft patch, or was it in fact heading into perhaps a double-dip recession,” said Tracy.

He noted that growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) had slowed from 5% in the fourth quarter of 2009 to 3.7% in the first quarter of 2010, and to 1.7% in the second quarter.

The result, said Tracy, was “quite a bit of consternation, given the fact that we were in an environment where there was very little room for conventional monetary policy to provide any additional support to the economy if in fact the economy was losing momentum.”

Fortunately, several factors caused economists toward the end of 2010 to begin improving their forecasts for 2011. Among them, Tracy noted, was the compromise that led to the extension of the Bush tax cuts, the announcement by the Fed of plans to purchase $600 billion in U.S. Treasury securities (a “quantitative easing” measure), and much-stronger-than-expected holiday retail sales.

“So at this point,” said Tracy, “it appears that concerns about whether the economy will in fact experience a double dip are quite low.”

The Fed’s Forecast
That’s good news, but will it translate into a robust economic recovery going forward? The recovery will progress, says Triest, but it will be gradual. He noted that unlike in past recessions, Connecticut’s economy tracked the nation’s in the recent downturn and that the pace of state’s recovery is likely to do the same.

Triest explained that the Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) expects GDP to accelerate over the next few years to a 2.4%-3% long-term growth rate with inflation remainin low in the long term—between 1.6% and 2%.

The FOMC also expects “the unemployment rate to be dropping in the future, albeit at a moderate pace,” said Triest. “So we’re not going to have a sudden drop in the unemployment rate, but it’s expected to occur fairly rapidly.”

The FOMC is predicting unemployment to be between 8.9% and 9.1% by the fourth quarter of 2011, then dropping to 7%-8.7% in 2012, and 5.9%-7.9% in 2013. Beyond that, Triest noted, the forecast is for 5%-6%, “when we’re fully recovered and the unemployment rate is at a rate that’s consistent with stable inflation and normal [job] churning.”

New Normal?
Perna, the panel moderator, asked Triest if a 5%-6% unemployment rate should be considered the “new normal” in the wake of the recession.

“There’s some degree of scarring as the result of the recession that could persist beyond 2013,” Triest said. “We know from various studies…that the probability that somebody loses a job decreases with the length of time that they’ve been on the job. So in a very deep recession, like the one we just had, with a very high degree of joblessness, you know that going forward there’ll be more people who are fairly early in their tenure at firms than would have been the case before the recession, and those people are at increased risk for layoffs.

“When they are laid off, they go into the pool of the unemployed, and they’ll be there for some time before they get another job. So the increased risk of people going into unemployment is something that could cause the unemployment rate to be elevated above where it was prior to the recession for some period of time.”

Downside Risks for Growth
Tracy believes that one of the biggest threats to the recovery is the housing market, which “was at the epicenter of the shock that caused the Great Recession.”

He noted that early in 2010, it appeared that the housing market had bottomed out and then began to pick up. That, says Tracy, “was largely a reflection of the tax credits, which were supporting housing activity. So we saw housing, in fact, weaken as the year concluded.”

Housing prices declined 3.9% over 2010, and 39 states saw declines. In addition, distress sales of homes as a fraction of total sales rose to 40%, significantly above where they were at the beginning of the year.

Tracy also pointed out that despite the loan modification efforts of the government and private sector, “they have been unable to stem the rise in the pipeline of foreclosures.” As a result, Tracy believes that default rates may start rising again. “As we look over this year and the next, an increased rate of foreclosures and distress sales are going to weigh on housing prices.”

But, he said, “I think the most likely outcome is that despite the risks…the economy will continue to strengthen and improve over the course of the year.”

Perna agreed, noting that although we’re not “out of the woods” when it comes to the European debt crisis and the states’ debt crises, most of these problems “will be resolved within the next four to five to six months, so it’s not hanging there forever. But what it means is that there might be some anxiety in financial markets.” —Bill DeRosa

 

 

 
Bill DeRosa is editor of CBIA News. He can be reached at bill.derosa@cbia.com.