Why recession fears are back: Americans are losing faith

New York

From the executive suite to the grocery aisles to the halls of the Federal Reserve, the big question is: Can red-hot inflation be vanquished without tipping the economy into a recession?

Ironically, all this talking about a recession can actually help cause one. How people feel is a huge driver of consumer behavior and business planning. The famous British economist John Maynard Keynes coined the phrase “animal spirits” to describe what drives investors, consumers and business leaders. Fear, hope, uncertainty, and confidence are all hard to measure — and hugely important to how the economy fares.

Essentially, worrying about a recession and planning for one can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“At the end of the day, a recession is a loss of faith,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. Consumers worry about losing a job and so pull back on spending, and business leaders worry their sales will decline and start laying off workers.

“You get into this kind of self-reinforcing negative cycle,” he told CNN’s Early Start. “So when sentiment is this bad and starting to feed on itself, we run the risk of talking ourselves into one.”

The US economy grew at a 2.9% annual rate in the third quarter, and the unemployment rate is near a 50-year low. That’s not going to last. The Federal Reserve this week lowered its forecast for growth in the United States next year to just 0.5% and a jobless rate rising to 4.6% by the end of 2023.

“Look, we’re planning as if there’s going to be a mild recession next year,” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby told CNN This Morning. “And a lot of people in the business world are trying to talk ourselves into one is what it sometimes feels like to me.”

But he added, “If I didn’t watch business shows or read the Wall Street Journal, the word recession wouldn’t be in my vocabulary because we just don’t see it in our data.”

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell and plenty of economists — including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen — still see a path to a so-called soft landing, where the economy slows enough to lower inflation but not cause a recession. Yellen explained this week that recession risks permanently exist.

“There are always risks of a recession,” Yellen told CBS’s “60 Minutes” in an interview that aired on Sunday. “The economy remains prone to shocks.”

But Zandi said there can be a bright side to the dark worries.

“It may just, in an odd kind of way, help things out because if everyone’s so nervous about recession, they are cautious,” he said. “They don’t take big risks. They don’t take on a lot of debt. They don’t go out and make big expansion moves (and) that may cool things off sufficiently to bring inflation down so that (the Fed) doesn’t have to raise rates as much and we actually — weirdly enough — avoid a recession.”

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon has expressed concern for months about an impending recession, citing higher interest rates and consumers spending down their excess pandemic savings.

“When you’re looking out forward, those things may very well derail the economy and cause this milder or hard recession that people are worried about,” he said earlier this month.

With inflation still at the highest level in a generation and central banks around the world continuing to raise interest rates, the risks for 2023 are undoubtedly high.

“I think it’s reasonable to be nervous and cautious about the economy next year,” Zandi acknowledged.

“But you know, having said that, I think we have a fighting chance of getting through the next year without an economic downturn.” He cites inflation “coming in here pretty quickly, consumers still have cash and middle- and high-income consumers are spending and businesses are reluctant to lay off workers because their number one problem is finding and retaining workers.”

He forecasts “just a moderate, steady slowing (in the job market) and economic activity as we move into next year. Hopefully we don’t lose faith and run for the bunker and go into recession.”

— CNN’s Elizabeth Yang contributed to this report.

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