Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Harvard economist: 80% chance of avoiding depression

Robert J. Barro says there is a 20% chance this recession will become a depression, and an 80% chance that it will not:
Central questions these days are how severe will the U.S. economic downturn be and how long will it last?

The most serious concern is that the downturn will become something worse than the largest recession of the post-World War II period — 1982, when real per capita GDP fell by 3% and the unemployment rate peaked at nearly 11%. Could we even experience a depression (defined as a decline in per-person GDP or consumption by 10% or more)? ...

There is ample reason to worry about slipping into a depression. There is a roughly one-in-five chance that U.S. GDP and consumption will fall by 10% or more, something not seen since the early 1930s. ...

In the end, we learned two things. Periods without stock-market crashes are very safe, in the sense that depressions are extremely unlikely. However, periods experiencing stock-market crashes, such as 2008-09 in the U.S., represent a serious threat. The odds are roughly one-in-five that the current recession will snowball into the macroeconomic decline of 10% or more that is the hallmark of a depression.

The bright side of a 20% depression probability is the 80% chance of avoiding a depression. The U.S. had stock-market crashes in 2000-02 (by 42%) and 1973-74 (49%) and, in each case, experienced only mild recessions. Hence, if we are lucky, the current downturn will also be moderate, though likely worse than the other U.S. post-World War II recessions, including 1982.

In this relatively favorable scenario, we may follow the path recently sketched by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, with the economy recovering by 2010. On the other hand, the 59 nonwar depressions in our sample have an average duration of nearly four years, which, if we have one here, means that it is likely recovery would not be substantial until 2012.

Given our situation, it is right that radical government policies should be considered if they promise to lower the probability and likely size of a depression. However, many governmental actions — including several pursued by Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression — can make things worse.

I wish I could be confident that the array of U.S. policies already in place and those likely forthcoming will be helpful. But I think it more likely that the economy will eventually recover despite these policies, rather than because of them.
Update: Professor Barro has recently increased the odds of depression to 30%:
And by examining these patterns [Barro] tells Fast Money there's a 30% chance that the current recession will snowball into an economic decline of 10% or more — the hallmark of depression.

That’s right, there’s at least a 30% chance — not one-in-five — as reported in the Journal. He's become even more bearish since the article published.


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