So you think it's bad news that a recession has been "officially declared"? (Turns out, it started back in December of last year.) Puh-lease. First of all, it shouldn't be news to anyone that the economy has been in the tank for a while. Unemployment has been climbing (from 4.4 percent in March 2007 to 6.5 percent now), and the stock market has been plummeting (down roughly 40 percent so far this year). Ouch!
Second, the recession announcement by the National Bureau of Economic Research can be a handy catalyst for action. Now that there's not a shadow of a doubt that the economy is terrible, you can look ahead to 2009, make smart plans to weather the downturn, and—if you're savvy—figure out how to take advantage of the tough times we'll be facing all next year:
- The economic outlook. Oh, it's going to be nasty out there. Not so nasty that your great-grandparents will quit telling those Great Depression stories, but bad nonetheless. For a while, economists thought we might luck out and get away with a downturn no worse than the 1990-91 recession. That one lasted eight months, with back-to-back quarters of negative GDP growth of 2.9 percent and 2 percent. Unemployment rose from 5.2 percent to 7.8 percent. But now it looks as if the 1981-82 downturn is the better comparison. It lasted 16 months, had several quarters where the economy shrank 3 percent more, and saw unemployment rise as high as 10.8 percent. So what about the recession of 2008-2009?
- Weakening big picture. There have been two quarters so far during the recession where the economy has gotten smaller, each time by less than 1 percent. Those days are over. "We are currently forecasting a 4 percent decline in real GDP in the fourth quarter, placing it among the worst quarters for economic growth in the postwar period," says Jason Trennert of Strategas Research. The first three months of next year could be just as bad. And even once the economy begins to grow again, the overhang from the credit crisis will probably crimp significant growth until until 2010.
- Worsening unemployment. It's the sharp jump in job losses that really pushed the NBER to make its recession call. And things only seem to be getting worse. "Current conditions in the economy are terrible," notes IHS Global Insight economist Brian Bethune. "Employment continues to go south, the unemployment rate is ramping up sharply, and households are seeing their net financial worth evaporate before their eyes on a daily basis." Economists say that an 8 percent unemployment rate is likely—and 10 percent is not out of the question. Even worse, more people without jobs will make it that much tougher for the housing market to rebound anytime soon.
- Sickly stock market. The stock market often begins to perk up about three to six months before the end of a recession. But economist Michael Darda of MKM Advisers says the time to buy has yet to arrive. "We don't expect the current recession to end until late 2009, which means equities may not put in a durable bottom until the first half of 2009."
- Tight credit. Since the housing bubble started to unravel, credit card companies have been cutting credit limits and, in some cases, raising interest rates, partly because they fear more consumers will default as financial stress spreads. "We haven't hit bottom yet in terms of credit card companies trying to protect themselves," says Justin McHenry, president of IndexCreditCards.com. Even if the Federal Reserve continues to hold down interest rates, McHenry says credit card companies will probably raise rates and cut credit limits through early 2009. That means people who have credit cards with decent rates should hold onto them, because they might not find a better deal elsewhere.
- Food prices may drop. After spikes in the prices of milk, eggs, and other staples earlier this year, shoppers may be in for some relief in 2009. The price increases were partly caused by the high price of gasoline, which is used to transport much of our food. Now gas prices are dropping, leading some analysts to expect lower supermarket prices. But it won't happen overnight, because the cost of diesel is still high, and farmers need to recover from the high input costs they faced over the summer.
- How to weather the storm. Even though you can't control the economy, you don't have to just sit there and be buffeted by these big economic forces. You can do stuff!
- Live below your means. Some people are shopping for this year's holiday gifts while still paying off their 2007 purchases, says Gail Cunningham of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. Now's the time to re-evaluate those habits, she says, before piling on even more debt. You can make sure you pay as little as possible for gifts by using online comparison websites. Another option is taking advantage of layaway programs at retailers that let you pay off purchases before you bring them home. That way, you avoid paying high interest rates to credit card companies.
- Bolster that emergency cushion. Even in flush times, financial advisers say consumers should have about six months' worth of expenses in their bank account to guard against job loss or other emergencies. Now, with the unemployment rate headed toward 7 percent, it's more important than ever.
- Toughen up your portfolio. It doesn't matter how smart your investing strategy is if you won't stick with it. And the roller-coaster stock market is sure making that tough to do. Jittery investors might want to think about stashing somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of their portfolio in less risky investments, such as bond funds, treasury bills, or money market funds. But don't overdo it. Investors who are decades away from retirement should keep the bulk of their portfolios in stocks. If you want to dial down your risk, look to stock funds that have been bucking the bear, such as Apex Mid Cap Growth and Reynolds Blue Chip Growth. Also, exchange-traded funds, which look like mutual funds but trade like stocks, give you more diversified exposure to a particular sector or industry than betting on individual issues.
- Save for a down payment: Unlike in the housing-boom days, borrowers will have to be able to make a sizable down payment to qualify for the lowest mortgage interest rates. So if you're looking to go bargain hunting in real estate, begin setting aside a little bit of cash each paycheck to put toward a down payment. When you begin to feel better about your job security, you'll be ready to take the plunge.
- How to take advantage of the bad times. Time to stop surviving and shift to thriving. It's an ill wind that doesn't blow some good, and you need to make the most of the opportunities that are out there.
- Energize your career. Don't just worry about keeping your job—make it better. Lean times present an opportunity for niche employees to put other skills to work and rebuild their reputations as go-to multitaskers. Employees should actively try to pick up the work of their departed peers. Also, volunteering to take on new responsibilities can pave the way for a negotiation in six to eight months, when an employee can prove that the job has evolved and is now worth more on the market. A new outlook and approach like this will help you hold on to your current job, or pave the way to your new career.
- Refinance your home. Recent Federal Reserve announcements intended to ease the financial crisis have sharply reduced 30-year fixed mortgage rates, to 5.5 percent at the start of the week vs. 6.2 percent just two weeks earlier, according to HSH Associates. "Recession equals lower Treasury rates, which equals lower mortgage rates, which equals a great opportunity to refinance," says Mike Larson, a real estate analyst at Weiss Research.
- Buy a home. Home prices nationally have already fallen more than 20 percent from their 2006 peak, and in certain boom-and-bust states the declines have been even more precipitous. So if you've got a stable job, good credit, a down payment, and a strong stomach, there are certainly buying opportunities out there for you. "I can point to properties here in [Florida] that are off 40 to 50 percent from their peak bubble levels," says Larson, who is based in Florida. "This is creating an opportunity."
- Look for the next great stock investments. Not only can you pretty much count on next year being one of lousy economic growth, you can for sure count on Barack Obama being president. And there are a few stocks out there that could get a boost from an Obama administration, including Chesapeake Energy (natural gas) and AeroVironment (aerial vehicles for Afghanistan). Also, keep an eye out for "growthy" (high earnings growth) small stocks, especially techs, which often are the first ones to rise when a new economic expansion nears. Hey, the recession can't last forever, right?
- Forget about keeping up with the Joneses. Since almost everyone's budgets are strained right now, cutting back is en vogue. Pollster John Zogby has found that a growing segment of the population has become more focused on spiritual fulfillment than on material success. Similarly, futurist Faith Popcorn's research shows that the concept of "frugality" has taken hold among families, with parents increasingly teaching their children to reconsider how much they consume and whether they could do with less. The "new frugality" movement, as she calls it, will usher in a new set of values for the next generation, she says.
- Negotiate almost everything. From credit cards to clothes, companies are open to making deals as they struggle to keep customers. "If you're a good customer, [credit card companies] may be more apt to negotiate your rate because they don't want to lose you," says McHenry of IndexCreditCards.com. At farmers markets and clothing boutiques, simply asking, "Can I get a discount?" can lead to a lower price. Paying with cash increases the chances of making a deal because it allows retailers to avoid credit card transaction fees.