US Economy Could Recover Much Sooner Than Expected

By Albert Bozzo
|  Thursday, Apr 9, 2009  |  Updated 2:15 PM EDT
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You've heard all the gloom and doom about this recession. Now here's some good news: the economic recovery could happen much sooner—and be much stronger—than anyone thought possible.

Suddenly, a small but growing group of private-sector economists is disputing the idea that the recession will drag on for months and that the rebound will be as weak as those following the the 1991 and 2001 downturns.

“Too many people’s idea of recession have been formed by the last two recessions,” says Robert Brusca of Fact & Opinion-based Economics, referring to the 1991 and 2001 periods, which were both short and shallow. "I think that's mistaken.”

“People have been talking about an L-shaped recession,” adds Miichael Mussa, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “The record shows you come back sharply from deep recessions” like the current one.

These economists and others see a V-shaped pattern, similar to that of the recession-recovery periods of the 1970s and 1980s. And they say there is ample evidence to support it.

Among the reasons for the new optimism: a significant easing of the credit crunch, improvement in consumer spending—including better auto sales—a potential bottom in housing, a less-grim jobs picture and expectations that the government's massive stimulus spending could start boosting economic growth almost immediately.

That doesn’t mean anyone is saying the recession is over yet. But the end is closer than people think.

Though the decline in first-quarter growth will be along the lines of the six-plus percent plunge of the fourth quarter of 2008, some economists now expect a flat or slightly negative showing in the second quarter, followed by the beginning of sustained growth in the third quarter. (That’s three months sooner than what many were forecasting several months ago.)

Optimists acknowledge that existing headwinds and unforeseen events can quickly derail momentum, which may help explain why a majority of opinions--including that of the the Federal Reserve--still fall into the wait-and-see camp.

“The velocity of downturn is lessening," says John J Castellani, chief economist and president of the Business Roundtable, who is more cautious than hopeful at this point. “In the initial part of the recovery, people will be very cautious about this being a double dip.”

Nevertheless, those forecasting a strong recovery point first and foremost to the waning effects of the Lehman Brothers collapse last fall, which roughly coincides with the worst of the credit crunch, and triggered a massive chain reaction in payroll and production cuts.

“The initial adjustment tends to be too big, then there’s some reversal of that,” says Ram Bhagavatula, managing director at the hedge fund, Combinatorics Capital. 

That dynamic will lead to swifter and stronger recovery in both the economy and employment that many economists are forecasting.

Mussa, a former White House and International Monetary Fund economist, says that GDP will be a cumulative 6-8 percent higher six quarter than the bottom, depending on whether the recovery starts in the early or late summer.

Brusca is expecting a minimum of 4.5 percent GDP growth over the first four quarters of the recovery

All About The Economy

Both performances compare favorably with the post-WWII average, and while they may be less than the recoveries of the 70s and 80s they are significantly more than those of the past two recessions

In the 70s cycle, GDP shrank two consecutive years then posted GDP growth averaging 5 percent in 1976-1977; in the case of the 80s, the economy contracted 1.9 percent—more than economists expect for full year 2009—then grew 4.5 percent in the first year of recovery.

By contrast, the 2001 recession was so brief and shallow, GDP didn’t register a contraction for the whole year. Growth in the 2002-2003 period, however, averaged just 2 percent. Similarly, in 1991, the economy shrank 0.2 percent, followed by 3-percent growth in 1992 and 1993.

Economists also cite several reasons for better labor market conditions this time. They expect job losses as well as the unemployment rate to peak close to the time growth bottoms out, as was the case in the 80s and 90s, and thus not resemble the jobless recoveries of the two most recent recessions.

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“Once recovery starts, it won’t be long before the unemployment rate begins to decline,” says Mussa, who doesn’t see the jobless rate breaking 10 percent.

Though the recession of 2001 ended in November of that year, 12 months later the economy had added just 200,000 jobs. Moreover, the jobless rate kept rising through June of 2003.

By contrast, payroll losses bottomed out one month after the recession of 1982 ended in November. Payrolls were 3 million higher a year later.

No one is expecting such robust job growth this time, but economists say the relatively strong showing in productivity during this recession points to lean payrolls, which will have to be fattened up--in some cases, quickly--as the economy improves.

"When you have high peaks in jobless claims, you have sharp declines in claims," says Brusca.

More broadly, economists also point to a number of economic factors that bode well, despite lingering concerns about he credit crunch.

“Cyclical forces trump secular forces,” says Brusca, referring to the massive de-leveraging by both consumers and business. “This is especially true when authorities have stepped in to stabilize it,” after a shocking event like Lehman.

“We have massive monetary and fiscal stimulus in the pipeline,” says Macroeconomic Advisers President Chris Vavares.

Macroeconomic Advisers, whose economist forecast for 2010 is more optimistic than that of the White House, estimates the government fiscal stimulus package will add 2 percent to GDP in the second quarter, one reason why the firm expects the economy to shrink by only 0.5 percent during the period. The consensus is for a 2.0-percent decline.

Then there are a handful of cyclical elements on the verge of being positives.

Consumer spending is growing again, while inventories are being wound down.  Housing and autos, in particular, says economists, hint at both pent-up demand and a production rebound.

“Housing will be an important element of the upturn right from the start,” says Mussa, who notes housing starts have been “beaten down” so much that supply will have to be added simply to accommodate demographic demand from new households.

The auto sector, which posted a surprise increase in sales in March, also has the potential to be a driving force.

“We all focus on what lousy shape they are in and not on that they have been cutting production,” says Varvares. “When you look at how quickly motor vehicles sales fell off the table last year--that big decline had a lot to due with the lack of financing.”

Varvares says automakers are starting to feel better about the credit environment and will offer better financing deals.

Macroeconomic Advisers' analysis makes a strong case for the role of housing and autos.

The two sectors erased a combined 2.5-3.0 percent from first quarter GDP, says Varvares. Autos, however will add 0.7 percent to GDP in the second quarter. Housing is expected to add 0.5 to 1.0 percent to GDP in 2010.

So, if the optimists are right, it's a case of gloom and boom.

"People were very gloomy in late '74 and '75," says Mussa. "They were gloomy in 1982."

For more stories from CNBC, go to cnbc.com.

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