By Martin Crutsinger
WASHINGTON — Massive airline layoffs. Empty hotels and restaurants. Wall Street’s biggest weekly point decline ever. The economic damage from the terrorist attacks has virtually guaranteed a recession this year, many economists said Friday.
The only questions remaining: How long and how deep?
"I think we will have a mild recession that will end sometime in the first three months of next year, but we really don’t know yet. Things are very uncertain and everybody is nervous," said David Wyss, chief economist at Standard &Poor’s in New York.
Two closely watched forecasting groups — the Blue Chip Economic Indicators and the National Association for Business Economics — surveyed economists in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Both released surveys this week finding that an overwhelming majority of economists believe a recession is unavoidable.
The National Association for Business Economics survey, released Friday, found that 18 of its 21 forecasters believe the country is now in a recession.
Blue Chip Economic Indicators reported that the number of economists it surveyed who believe a recession has begun had jumped to 82 percent, up from 13 percent in early September.
In both surveys, the new pessimism was pegged to a belief that consumers — who account for two-thirds of economic activity — would cut back sharply on their spending in the wake of the terrorist attacks and rising job layoff announcements.
Some analysts said the National Bureau of Economic Research, the official arbiter of recessions in the United States, will end up dating the start of this downturn in May or June, based on when various monthly statistics started to turn down.
"The Sept. 11 reign of terror didn’t cause the recession, but it’s finally allowed the financial markets to recognize one," said Jeffrey Rubin, chief economist at CIBC, a New York investment bank, who predicted the U.S. economy will see an additional 600,000 layoffs in coming months.
Analysts said the plunge in stocks will further depress consumer spending as Americans watch their portfolios shrink.
Michael Evans, chief economist at American Economics Group, a private consulting firm, said he did not believe the economy would turn around until six months after the stock market finally starts to rebound.
Evans said he was looking for a relatively mild recession with an unemployment rate topping out at 6 percent.
In just the past 11 days, the airline industry has announced more than 100,000 layoffs and the disruption in air travel has quickly rippled through to hotels and other businesses that depend on tourism.
"People have a deer in the headlights look right now. They are not traveling. They are not going out to eat. They are not going to shopping malls," Wyss said.
The Conference Board released a new survey Friday that showed that 47 percent of consumers believe the country will sink into recession. Many analysts believe growth next year will be helped by billions of dollars in extra government spending for reconstruction and to boost security, but those increases won’t be enough to prevent a downturn.
But all economists cautioned their forecasts will be highly dependent on such unknowable factors as how the U.S. military campaign against the terrorists proceeds.
"In the pessimistic alternative, the economic damage from the attacks mounts and … anxiety rises as the war on terrorism drags on with increasing casualties," said Sung Won Sohn, chief economist at Wells Fargo in Minneapolis.
However, he said under an optimistic scenario, the U.S. effort could meet with quick success by Thanksgiving and "with confidence soaring, the economy avoids a recession."
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