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Experts ponder: When does downturn slip into depression?
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 03.03.2009
WASHINGTON — A Depression doesn't have to be Great — bread lines, rampant unemployment, a wipeout in the stock market. The economy can sink into a milder depression, the kind spelled with a lowercase "d."
And it may be happening now.
The trouble is, unlike recessions, which are easy to define, there are no firm rules for what makes a depression. Everyone at least seems to agree there hasn't been one since the epic hardship of the 1930s.
But with each new hard-times headline, most recently an alarming economic contraction of 6.2 percent in the fourth quarter, it seems more likely that the next depression is on its way.
"We're probably in a depression now. But it's not going to be acknowledged until years go by. Because you have to see it behind you," said Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland.
No one disputes that the current economic downturn qualifies as a recession. Recessions have two definitions, both in effect now — two straight quarters of economic contraction, or when the National Bureau of Economic Research says so.
Declaring a depression is much trickier.
By one definition, it's a downturn of three years or more with a 10 percent drop in economic output and unemployment above 10 percent. The current downturn doesn't qualify yet: 15 months old and 7.6 percent unemployment. But both unemployment and the 6.2 percent contraction for late last year could easily worsen.
Another definition says a depression is a sustained recession during which the populace has to dispose of tangible assets to pay for everyday living. For some families, that's happening now.
The Great Depression retains the heavyweight crown. Unemployment peaked at more than 25 percent. From 1929 to 1933, the economy shrank 27 percent. The stock market lost 90 percent of its value from boom to bust.
And while last year in the stock market was the worst since 1931, the Dow Jones industrials would have to fall about 5,000 more points to approach what happened in the Depression.
Few economists expect this downturn will be the sequel. But nobody knows for sure.
Policymakers and economists note there are safeguards in place that weren't there in the 1930s: deposit insurance, unemployment insurance and an ability by the government to hurl trillions of dollars at the problem, even if it means printing money.
Most postwar U.S. recessions have come after the Fed has increased interest rates to cool down rapid economic growth and inflation.
Later, the Fed lowers rates and helps restart the economy, with the housing and auto sectors — both sensitive to interest rates — leading the way.
This time is different: As Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, D-Conn., said, "Our housing and auto sectors are leading us not out of recession, but into it."
What's more, the Fed no longer has the ability to kick-start recovery by lowering interest rates. The central bank has already effectively lowered the short-term rates it controls to zero.
"It is certainly plausible that the kinds of policy measures that have been good enough to tame the business cycle are no longer adequate in a fast-moving, highly leveraged, highly networked economy," said Anirvan Banerji of the Economic Cycle Research Institute.
Today's economic indicators don't project a depression. But Banerji is cautious. Economic data in 1929 didn't show that the stock market crash was about to lead to years of economic misery, either.