Are we in recession or not? A geek gets some answers

Phil Castle

I’m not at all ashamed to admit it. I’m something of a geek when it comes to economics and economic indicators. That’s a good thing for the editor of a business journal who spends a good portion of his time reporting on those topics.

Imagine, then, my delight, at being invited to participate in virtual media briefings hosted by the Conference Board. A member-driven think tank based in New York, the Conference Board calculates a number of important economic indexes, most notably the Consumer Confidence Index. The results of those monthly indexes appear on the Business Times website.

While not as local as such economic indicators as unemployment rates, real estate sales or tax collections, the index results help nonetheless in completing the larger economic picture upon which business owners and managers should keep a close eye. Consumer spending, for example, accounts for more than two-thirds of all economic activity. It’s important, then, to track how optimistic or pessimistic consumers feel about business and labor conditions.

At the latest media briefing, economists with the Conference Board tried to answer a question I suspect most business owners and managers — just about everyone, for that matter — have pondered. Are we in recession or not?

Dana Peterson, chief economist at the Conference Board, provided the short answer: “It’s probably starting right about now.”

A modest decline in gross domestic product — the broad measure of goods and services produced in the country — likely will occur in the first quarter and become more pronounced during the second quarter, she said.

She based her assessment in part on a monthly index forecasting economic conditions in the United States. The Leading Economic Index has retreated 3.6 percent over the past six months, a decline that signals an increased risk of recession in the near term.

The expectations component of the Consumer Confidence Index has remained below 80 for 11 of the last 12 months, a level that usually signals a recession.

The decline in GDP is a result in part of higher interest rates imposed by the Federal Reserve to combat inflation. While there’s some speculation the Fed could relent in its efforts, Peterson doesn’t believe that will be the case. “We don’t really think the Fed is going to blink.”

Higher interest rates have exerted substantial effects on the real estate market in making financing more expensive. That’s evident in dramatic year-over-year drops in transactions and dollar volume in Mesa County. Peterson expects higher interest rates to also dampen demand among consumers, businesses and the government.

The good news: If, in fact, a recession is under way, it likely will be comparatively shallow and short. I hope that’s the case and the effects on Grand Valley businesses remain mild. In the meantime, this geek will keep reporting on economics.

Phil Castle is editor of the Business Times. Reach him at 424-5133 or