Despite that dose of circumspection, David W. Berson and James F. Smith told more than 400 people in UNCA's Lipinsky Auditorium that the recession will probably end in the fourth quarter of this year, but the recovery in the job and housing markets will be modest. The attentive crowd, gathered for the 25th annual Economic Crystal Ball Seminar, was double the biggest previous draw.
Based in California, Berson is chief economist for the PMI Group and a former vice president and chief economist at Fannie Mae. Smith, who lives in Arden, is chief economist for Parsec Financial. Both are nationally known for their forecasts.
Berson noted that he'd previously predicted the recession would end in 2008. "There are many reasons why a forecast can be wrong. In this particular case, I think there was a very good chance that the recession would have ended up being relatively short and mild, but there were some very bad policy errors made last fall," such as the decision not to bail out Lehman Brothers, he maintained.
And Berson tempered his prediction of positive economic growth by this year's end, emphasizing that the job market will be slow to come back. The national unemployment rate will continue to rise through next year, topping out at 9.5 percent or higher, he said.
The first sign of improvement will come in the housing market, Berson believes. Existing home sales "have probably already bottomed," he said, and housing prices will continue to decline steeply in the hardest-hit parts of the country. But mortgage rates are low, and there's financial help available for first-time homebuyers. "It's going to be the first-time homebuyer that's going to power housing out of this downturn," he predicted.
Overall, Berson said he's looking for about 3 percent growth in the economy next year, held down in part by consumers' continuing hesitation. But even that forecast, he added, is not rock-solid: Another policy error, a dramatic jump in the consumer savings rate or other factors could derail a recovery, Berson said.
"I'd say the risk of that is about 35 percent. So about about a one-third chance this recession continues into 2010, but about a two-thirds chance that it doesn't."
Smith focused much of his presentation on the cyclical nature of the American economy, citing signs that he said have preceded every U.S. recession and recounting previous financial panics.
But after every dramatic downturn, Smith maintained, "The global economic system comes back stronger than ever," and that's likely to happen again this time. Government leaders, he noted, are throwing trillions of dollars at the problem. Why? "Because they want to get re-elected."
All that money pumped into the economy, Smith predicted, will jump-start the stock market, and the housing and vehicle markets will follow. Consumer confidence will pick up, and small-business owners will regain their optimism.
Both economists ended their presentations on a high note. "I think things are going to be better soon," said Smith, echoing Berson's prediction of an uptick late in 2009.
"There's still some pain for the next six months or so," said Berson, "but after that the economy's going to get better, the housing market's going to get better, and a year from now, I think the people in this room will feel a whole lot better about what's going on around them than they do today."