The US economy may not be in recession, but this is the nearest thing. In spite of the recent fiscal stimulus, output grew less than 2 per cent at an annual rate in the second quarter, slower than expected. That followed growth of 1 per cent in the first quarter and a contraction (on revised numbers) of 0.2 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2007. A recession is usually defined as two consecutive quarters of shrinking output. It has not happened yet, but it very well might in the next few quarters. Even if it does not, that would be little consolation.
Prospects for the second half of the year are poor. Some of the current boost from the fiscal injection delivered last quarter will keep feeding through, but consumer spending, the hitherto unstoppable engine of US growth, is stalling. The prices of food and petrol, together with still-tightening credit conditions and a housing market that has not yet touched bottom, are weighing it down. Net exports were the main accelerator in the second quarter – without that rise, in fact, output would have fallen, fiscal stimulus or no. But they cannot be relied on in future because growth in Europe and elsewhere is going to be limited by, among other things, policymakers’ worries about inflation.
Most forecasters are expecting a double-dip US slowdown – and the second dip could be a technical recession. Regardless, the labour market is already behaving that way. Unemployment moved up to 5.7 per cent in July, the labour department reported on Friday. Overtime is falling; involuntary part-time working is on the rise. Unemployment will climb above 6 per cent next year. While it may be true that the US has seen much worse, this is no mere “mental recession”.
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