Missing the recession boat

Today’s NYTimes article on Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s testimony to Congress yesterday, and the simultaneous drop in the stock market, includes a few noteworthy passages:

The stock market plunged again on Thursday on bad economic news, taking little comfort from reassuring words by the chairman of the Federal Reserve or an emerging consensus about a stimulus plan that many worry could be too late.

On a day when stocks were pushed down another 3 percent on reports of more weakness in housing and manufacturing “” bringing the decline this year to a stomach-churning 9 percent “” all the major players in Washington agreed on the need for putting extra money into people’s hands quickly.

President Bush publicly confirmed for the first time that he would propose a package of emergency measures, outlining its basic principles on Friday, in an effort to restore the eroding confidence of investors and consumers. The package is expected to include more than $100 billion in one-time tax rebates for individuals and an opportunity for businesses to rapidly write off their capital investments.

Adding to the pessimism, which drowned out the reassurances by Mr. Bernanke that a recession could be averted, were reports that manufacturing activity could be slowing even more than analysts had expected, and that housing starts dropped 14 percent last month and reached their lowest level in 16 years.

Mr. Bernanke insisted that despite concerns about “slowing growth,” the economy remained “extraordinarily resilient.”

I say “noteworthy” in light of Dean Baker’s ongoing crusade to right the wrongs in mainstream media reporting on the economy–and in mainstream economists’ ability to figure out what exactly is happening in the real world. Several of his recent posts deal with the failure of most economists to recognize when a recession begins until long after the fact: “economists have an enormous bias against seeing recessions. Virtually no economist saw the recession coming in 2001, even after the stock bubble was already well on its way to deflating (okay, none of them saw the bubble either). This includes all the official forecasters, CBO and OMB both projected solid growth in 2001.” Scroll through all of Dean’s recent posts and you’ll see more of the same clear-eyed view.

In light of this, how reassured should anyone be when Bernanke says a recession can be avoided? What are the odds that a year from now, the economics establishment won’t have determined that the recession actually started a few months back in 2007? And on top if it all, given that it took the stock market five years (and a terrorist-induced recession and boondoggle war) to largely deflate from the peak of the 1990s bubble (only in 1995 did the S&P 500’s price-to-earnings ratio drop down to the 25-year average — and even that average is well above the longer-term average [pdf chart]), how shocking can it be when it tumbles again and again in face of reality?

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