Economy Shrinks At Staggering Rate

Chryslers are delivered to an Omaha dealership. Business inventories contracted in the last quarter of 2008.
Chryslers are delivered to an Omaha dealership. Business inventories contracted in the last quarter of 2008. (By Nati Harnik -- Associated Press)
[Quarterly percent change, U.S. gross domestic product, annual rate]
By Annys Shin and Neil Irwin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 28, 2009

The prospects for an economic recovery by year's end dimmed yesterday, as government data showed that the economy contracted at the end of 2008 by the fastest pace in a quarter-century. The worse-than-expected data fueled doubts about whether the Obama administration had adequately sized up the challenges it faces in trying to pull the country out of recession.

Gross domestic product, a measure of the goods and services produced across the nation, shrank at an annualized rate of 6.2 percent in the last quarter of 2008, according to the Commerce Department, far worse than the initial estimate of 3.8 percent and the 5 percent most analysts were expecting. The downward revision means the economy began the year from an even weaker position than previously thought.

"The economy really doesn't have any momentum going into the first quarter," Wachovia economist John Silvia said. "To the extent the economy may have been weaker, then the impact of the stimulus would be more muted."

The Dow Jones industrial average tumbled 1.7 percent, or 119 points, capping a week in which stocks were battered by concerns that parts of the banking sector would be nationalized. Shares of Citigroup tanked 39 percent, to $1.50 after the government prepared to take a large ownership stake in the firm. Major indexes closed down about 4 percent on the week.

More than a year into the downturn, businesses are hunkering down. Technology and services conglomerate General Electric said yesterday that it would cut its annual dividend in July for the first time in at least 59 years to conserve cash and keep its borrowing costs as low as possible. Latham & Watkins, the nation's fourth-largest law firm, said it would dismiss 190 lawyers and more than 250 paralegals and support staff.

The revised GDP figure helped stoke skepticism among economists who say the White House's projections for the nation's recovery are too rosy. Based on those projections, Obama said he would slash the deficit in half by the end of his term. In its budget outline, the administration predicted that the economy would shrink 1.2 percent this year and grow 3.2 percent next year. By contrast, the consensus among private forecasters is that the economy will shrink 1.9 percent this year and grow 2.1 percent next year.

"It's just premature to expect the economy to be recovering," said Joshua Shapiro, chief economist at MFR, a forecasting firm. He said he expects the recession to drag into early next year.

"If you looked at the Obama administration's forecast, it's very much at the optimistic end of the spectrum. There's a whole 180 degrees between us and them," Shapiro said. "That doesn't guarantee they're wrong and the pessimists are right. But they are making pretty optimistic assumptions right now to hit even these terrible numbers for deficits."

Christina Romer, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, told reporters yesterday that the administration's growth projections were made weeks ago, before data showed an even deeper recession, and noted that it is normal for an economy to bounce back fairly sharply after a major downturn.

Speaking at monetary policy conference in New York yesterday, she said the first quarter "is going to be bad," but the government stimulus package and other efforts would eventually bring healing.

"We are a supertanker, and it doesn't turn quickly," she said.

The updated fourth-quarter gross domestic product was the first of two revisions. It was based on more complete information than was available for the earlier estimate in January.

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