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Quit Doling Out That Bad-Economy Line

("Depression Bread Line" At The Fdr Memorial; Photo By Frank Johnston -- The Washington Post)
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But at least Forbes wasn't dissing the economy -- he was dissing Obama. And Obama's infection by the Depression-exaggeration bug goes way back. His first outbreak came on Oct. 2, 2002, in his famous speech opposing the invasion of Iraq, delivered when he was an Illinois state senator. He said that the invasion was "the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from" a litany of economic troubles including "a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression."

Quite an exaggeration. When state senator Obama made that remark, the Standard & Poor's 500 had just dropped 11 percent for the month of September 2002. But stocks dropped twice that much in October 1987. Since the Great Depression, the stock market has had bigger one-month drops on four occasions. Obama's pessimism on stocks then happened to be as ineptly timed as it was factually incorrect. Exactly one week later, stocks hit bottom, and over the next five years the S&P 500 more than doubled, surging to new all-time highs.

So much for Obama's hyperbole about our terrible economy. But what about the media's?

A housing "slump," a housing "crisis"? A "severe" price decline? According to the latest report from the National Association of Realtors, the median price of an existing home is up 8.5 percent from the low of last February. And according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median price of a new home is up 1.3 percent from the low of last December. Home prices may not be at all-time highs -- and there are pockets of continuing decline in some urban areas -- but overall they've clearly stopped going down and have started to recover. So why keep proclaiming a "crisis" after it's over?

"Turmoil" in the debt markets? Sure, but we've seen plenty worse. According to the FDIC, there have been a total of 13 bank failures in 2007 and so far into 2008. There were 15 in 1999-2000, the climax of the Obama-celebrated era of Clintonian prosperity. And in recession-free 1988-89, there were 1,004 failures -- almost an order of magnitude more than today. Since the Great Depression, the average number of bank failures each year has been 94.

Despite highly publicized losses in subprime mortgage lending, bank equity capital -- the best measure of core financial strength -- is now $1.35 trillion, more than the $1.28 trillion level of mid-2007, before the "turmoil" even began.

Financial market "crisis" and "meltdown"? Yes, from all-time highs last October, the S&P 500 has fallen 20 percent. But that's nothing by historical standards. Stocks have often fallen more than that over comparable spans of time. They fell more than twice that much in 1974 -- which was truly the worst drop since the Great Depression. Even the present 20-percent loss isn't what it seems. The damage has been heavily concentrated in the financial sector -- banks, investment firms and mortgage companies. If you exclude that sector, stocks are off 14.8 percent.

Some economic indicators -- export growth and non-defense capital goods orders such as industrial machinery, for example -- are running at levels associated with brisk expansion. Others are running at middling levels, such as the closely followed Institute for Supply Management manufacturing index. But it's actually difficult to find many that are running at truly recessionary levels.

There have been 11 recessions since the Great Depression. And we're nowhere close to being in the 12th one now. This isn't just a matter of opinion. Words -- even words as seemingly subjective as "recession" -- have meaning.

In a new working paper, economist Edward Leamer of UCLA's Anderson School of Management shows that changes in the unemployment rate, payroll jobs and industrial production almost precisely explain every recession as officially determined by the National Bureau of Economic Research. At present, only the unemployment rate exceeds the recession threshold. The other two factors are far from it. According to Leamer's paper, we'll only fall into recession "if things get much worse."

This would suggest that anyone who says we're in a recession, or heading into one -- especially the worst one since the Great Depression -- is making up his own private definition of "recession." And probably for his own political purposes.

McCain campaign adviser and former U.S. senator Phil Gramm was right in July when he said that our current state "is a mental recession." Maybe he was out of line when he added that the United States has become "a nation of whiners." But when it comes to the economy, we have surely become a nation of exaggerators.


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