NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Investors may not have to worry about whether the economy might plunge back into recession for much longer. Increasingly, it looks as though the plunge has already begun.
Economic reports for February were downright abysmal, suggesting that the economy had rapidly lost the momentum that it had begun the year with. March's opening shot, the Chicago-area Purchasing Managers' Index, came in far below economists' already-dour predictions. If anything, indications are that the economy was even worse in March than it was in February.
In a morning note Monday, Merrill Lynch chief North American Economist David Rosenberg said that, as far as he could tell, the economy contracted both months. If there is going to be a recession, according to Rosenberg, we're probably already in it.
According to the official nonofficial arbiter of U.S. business cycles, the National Bureau of Economic Research, a recession is "a significant decline in activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, visible in industrial production, employment, real income, and wholesale-retail sales."
|Consumer Confidence Index†||77†||64 from a revised 78.8 in January -- one of the five worst plunges in history.†|
|Purchasing Managers' Index†||52†||50.5. Under 50 signals contraction in manufacturing.†|
|Nonfarm payrolls†||+20,000†||-308,000. It was the worst round of job-cutting in 15 months.†|
|Retail sales†||-0.5%†||-1.6%. War worries, and bad weather, crimped spending.†|
|Durable goods orders†||-1%†||-1.2%. January orders were revised to up 1.9% from up 3.3%†|
|†* All estimates Reuters|
Recent data suggest the decline is there. Over the past month, just about any major economic report you would care to think of painted a weak picture, with the national Purchasing Managers' Index, retail sales and nonfarm payrolls showing surprising weakness.
"When things slow as much as they have," said Natexis Bleichroeder economist James Padinha, "are we heading back into recession, or can we get out of it."
But the decline hasn't lasted long enough to slap the recession label on it. At least not yet.
"A recession is in the eye of the beholder, and the eye of the NBER, but clearly we're struggling here," said Northern Trust chief U.S. economist Paul Kasriel. "We're at stall speed and it's not clear what, in the short term, is going to get the economy's nose up."
|WATCHING THE WAR
Still, most economists -- Kasriel included -- continue to believe that the economy will work its way out of the current rough patch back into middling growth. But forecasts have been coming down and the odds given to the economy going into recession have been going up.
"We've been saying the chance of recession is a one-in-three, and those risks are increasing," said Goldman Sachs director of U.S. economic research Bill Dudley.
For most economists, the idea the economy will skirt recession depends on events in the political and geopolitical sphere. Congress, they think, will push through some sort of tax cut and stimulus plan, in due course, and that will help get things moving again. More importantly, war with Iraq will be over shortly.
"Are the economic indicators looking like a recession? Absolutely," said Lehman Brothers chief U.S. economist Ethan Harris. "But you can still hold out hope that the war is resolved in a month or so and the economy can stage some kind of recovery."
Even if Harris' hopes for a quick war are met, the economy may still have a difficult time pulling out of its decline, some worry. Yes, the end of the war might fuel a bout of optimism, particularly among consumers, but it may not be enough to get business spending, the thorn in the economy's side, back on track.
"There's nothing out there that's going to lead the recovery," said Brown Brothers Harriman fixed-income portfolio manager Richard Koss. "Businesses don't want to spend -- they're more focused on paying down debt than on buying things."
Koss isn't even all that sure that the economy ever came out of recession. Nor is the NBER, which still hasn't got around to declaring when the recession that began in March 2001 ended. Earlier this month it said that, because employment continues to suffer, it still needs time to determine whether the last downturn, in fact, ended.
With the economy sliding anew, the answer might be little more than semantics. Whether it comes in two dips or one dollop, economic pain is economic pain.