We Aren't Out Of The Woods Yet, Economically

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on February 23, 2010

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Bad news abounds:

A monthly poll showed consumers’ confidence took a surprisingly sharp fall in February amid rising job worries. The decline ends three straight months of improvement and raises concerns about the economic recovery.

The Conference Board said Tuesday its Consumer Confidence Index fell almost 11 points to 46 in February, down from a revised 56.5 in January. Analysts were expecting only a slight decrease to 55.

The increasing pessimism is a big blow to hopes that consumer spending will power an economic recovery. Economists watch the confidence numbers closely because consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of U.S. economic activity.

The February reading is a long way from what’s considered healthy: A reading above 90 means the economy is on solid footing. Above 100 signals strong growth.

The news sent stocks lower, overshadowing retailer reports that showed stronger holiday profits. The Dow Jones industrial average falling 74.29 points to 10,309.09 by midmorning.

And the jobs situation ain’t that great either:

The number of mass layoffs by U.S. employers edged up in January as manufacturers stepped up job cuts, data showed on Tuesday, but probably not enough to alter views that the economy is on the brink of creating jobs.

The Labor Department said the number of mass layoff actions — defined as job cuts involving at least 50 people from a single employer — increased by 35 to 1,761. Mass layoffs had trended lower since August.

A total of 182,261 workers were affected last month. In January, 486 mass layoff events were reported in manufacturing, resulting in 62,556 workers filing claims for state unemployment benefits. It was the first increase in mass layoffs in manufacturing since August.

To be sure, employment is a lagging indicator, but that’s cold comfort to the people affected by the employment picture.

The global picture doesn’t look much better, unfortunately:

Ballooning debt is likely to force several countries to default and the U.S. to cut spending, according to Harvard University Professor Kenneth Rogoff, who in 2008 predicted the failure of big American banks.

Following banking crises, “we usually see a bunch of sovereign defaults, say in a few years,” Rogoff, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, said at a forum in Tokyo yesterday. “I predict we will again.”

The U.S. is likely to tighten monetary policy before cutting government spending, sending “shockwaves” through financial markets, Rogoff said in an interview after the speech. Fiscal policy won’t be curbed until soaring bond yields trigger “very painful” tax increases and spending cuts, he said.

Global scrutiny of sovereign debt has risen after budget shortfalls of countries including Greece swelled in the wake of the worst global financial meltdown since the 1930s. The U.S. is facing an unprecedented $1.6 trillion budget deficit in the year ending Sept. 30, the government has forecast.

“Most countries have reached a point where it would be much wiser to phase out fiscal stimulus,” said Rogoff, who co- wrote a history of financial crises published in 2009. It would be better “to keep monetary policy soft and start gradually tightening fiscal policy even if it meant some inflation.”

But other than all of this, of course, everything is going swimmingly.

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