A real economic downturn, or not so much?
November 16, 2008 4:32 AM   Subscribe

A real economic downturn, or not so much?

In May I asked if the downturn reported in the media was really affecting folk in the US. Things have changed a lot, so I'm asking again, to see if the answers have changed. Last time I asked about the US but I am also interested in other countries.
posted by bystander to Work & Money (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
To follow up, I am well aware of the financial market issues, but I am more interested in real world issues.
posted by bystander at 4:44 AM on November 16, 2008

This is anecdotal, but I'm already noticing effects of the downturn in Northern Ireland. A few friends in the construction industry have lost jobs and moved into unrelated industrys as they can't get work in construction.

Also, we moved offices into the center of Belfast over the summer and walking around at lunch times has made me aware of so many empty shops that can't get let. Plenty of shoppers but not many shopping bags.

I think we'll know better come the new year but I have a feeling this is going to be a stinker of a festive season.

Another factor for Northern Ireland is how much funding we get from the EU. I know nothing about these matters but I can't see the same levels of investment coming in that have been, and this funding is keeping a lot of people in jobs over here.

Personally, I'm doing grand. Being frugal (which, if everyone is doing the same, could make the downturn more severe), but realistically I'm not much worse off from this time last year. I have started keeping track of outgoings for the first time in my life but I'm not spending much less than before.
posted by twistedonion at 5:07 AM on November 16, 2008

I know 1 person who had a pay cut and 1 person who lost their job in recent weeks, so I guess so. It sounds like the recent unemployment figures from the US agree with that sentiment. It's definitely a real down turn.
posted by public at 5:10 AM on November 16, 2008

The plummeting of house price values in the UK has wiped out the last three years of increases and put me in negative equity. (I bought two and a half years ago) I had planned to move up from a 2 bed flat to a 3 bed house so we can start a family, but I'm stuck here for the next few years at least and we'll have to make do. My mortgage fixed rate ended, so initially my monthly payments went up quite a bit, with a new fixed deal even more expensive. The big fall in UK interest rates though will be a definite help.

My weekly food shop has increased by around 40-50% mainly due to the passing on the huge increase in oil prices. Hopefully the recent fall will also be passed on eventually, but i'm not holding my breath. Similarly, the cost of electricity and gas has soared by 35% in just the last increase, with no signs of it coming down any time soon.

Fortunately, I saw it coming and paid off most of my debts just in time, so have more income free to soak up the rise in cost of living, and I have a steady job in education that I'm unlikely to lose. Unlike two of my neighbours who've bost lost their jobs in recent months (both related to construction).
posted by ArkhanJG at 5:10 AM on November 16, 2008

"U.S. Jobless Rate Hits 14-Year High"

That seems pretty straightforward.

And I've heard pundits say there isn't much question that we're either in a recession or about to be in one (in the formal definition of "recession," not just loosely speaking of hard times).

I have absolutely no expertise in this, but I don't think there's any question that we're in the middle of an economic -- not just financial -- downturn.
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:28 AM on November 16, 2008

I answered your question this way in May:

"I live in the Northeast US and the only effects I have witnessed first-hand are:

* Higher food prices

* Higher gas prices

* More houses on the market for longer periods of time

* Anecdotal evidence of increased homelessness in large cities, (New York, LA and Boston first-hand)
Since then food prices ares till high, gas has gone down and the housing market is still in the dumps. My house has lost 8% of it's value since I bought it two years ago.

I guess it's not a depression since I still have my job. I have witnessed the effects however. A couple with kids that I know were forced to put their house on their market and may have to move in with a parent (they're in their 40's) because the husband was in the financial field and was laid off.

Although I'm personally as busy as I've ever been at work, my company is being forced to re-evaluate traditional sources of revenue and diversify to other potential profit makers.

However, despite all this I still feel this isn't massively *worse* then the downturn after 9/11. Then again, I was a casualty of that downturn when I was laid off, so perhaps it's all relative.
posted by jeremias at 6:08 AM on November 16, 2008

Oh yeah, sign that this is more significant. A few weeks ago my son's soccer season was ending. Traditionally, parents chip in to buy the coaches (who are volunteers) a present. This year, all the parents decided to pool the donations to a local food kitchen instead. There was no questioning why.
posted by jeremias at 6:13 AM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I live in the US.

Macro view: Home foreclosures are up 25% nationally, and the only reason that's not higher is because of new laws in CA and NC requiring a month or more for lenders to contact homeowners with default notices. (More on foreclosure trends.) Home values have crashed and joblessness has spiked. Bankruptcy filings are up. Retails sales are down. Companies are going out of business or slashing workforces all over and joblessness is at a five-year high. Some state economies and housing/job markets are far more robust than others but things are tough all over.

Micro view: I have known or known of many people who've lost jobs or are anxiously awaiting cutback news. The start-up I was working for was already on life support when the crises hit and my freelancing outside of grant-funding academic projects is completely dead. After that pretty unstable period, I was hired a month ago at a medical nonprofit; the director told me that she had something on the order of 90 viable local candidates and hundreds more from throughout the US (this is in Portland, OR). A significant portion were currently jobless. Some of my own family who have lost their business are now doubled-up homeless. That means they'd be homeless if other family hadn't taken them in. I have other relatives who wouldn't have homes if other family members weren't helping or had helped with bills. This is to say nothing of nearly universal and massive 401K losses that are one thing for a person my age (30s) to absorb, and quite another for people near retirement age to manage. I personally feel extremely fortunate that my husband and I are both working.

In sum: This economic downturn is about as real as I care for it to get. It's damn hard times for a lot of people.
posted by melissa may at 6:28 AM on November 16, 2008

Totally anecdotal and no way to test the connection-- I've been driving the same route home for several years, and for years it has taken 30 minutes. This year it is taking 20 minutes, because there is way less traffic. First started noticing this last summer when gas was $4.40 in Chicago, but it hasn't reverted since gas got down to $2.50 recently. I think people are just not driving if they don't have to.
posted by nax at 6:37 AM on November 16, 2008

I can't for the life of me find a job in my field. It's hard to find a job when there are less of them to go around.
posted by All.star at 7:27 AM on November 16, 2008

Real. A large number of academic jobs (scarce even in the best of times) are being cancelled in mid-search because of widespread hiring freezes in universities. Many freelancer friends out of work, with no good prospects for getting other work.
posted by agent99 at 8:18 AM on November 16, 2008

Anecdata: I was laid off last month when the tiny biotech company I worked for imploded after the market meltdown dried up their venture capital.
posted by Quietgal at 8:26 AM on November 16, 2008

TechCrunch layoff tracker
posted by milkrate at 8:51 AM on November 16, 2008

The "not so much" case would require a thesis of when & how the present contraction will reverse.

U.S. Consumer Sentiment stays near 28-year low

Since wages didn't go up much during the boom-times this decade, it's arguable we are in a continuation of the macro conditions of the dot-com bust, and that the 2002-2007 recovery was a debt-driven enterprise, putting the financial condition of the nation in a much more precariously stressed state now than in 2002-2003.

This debt orgy was largely fueled by the real estate mania. This chart shows how buyers in various countries bid up the prices of houses way past the point of traditional affordability ratios.

This price rise fueled the liberation of hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars of (phantom) home equity, mainly via cash-out refinancing, that was then spent on consumer goods and services:
"From 2004 through 2006, Americans pulled about $840 billion a year out of residential real estate, via sales, home equity lines of credit and refinanced mortgages, according to data presented in an updated working paper by James Kennedy, an economist, and Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman. These so-called home equity withdrawals financed as much as $310 billion a year in personal consumption from 2004 to 2006, according to the data."
Now, $300B per year may not sound like much in an allegedly $10T economy, but dividing that by $50,000 per job and that's SIX MILLION jobs in the US being supported by debt pulls.

The powers that be really set the pins for a humdinger of a depression, much like the 1920s global depression and the 1990s Japan one.

The difference between now and the 30s, though, is that government was relatively powerless to intervene to keep the factories humming, resulting in utilization falling to 20% or so during the depths of the depression. Japan in the 1990s said fuck that, we'll stimulate our industry to keep them at least employing people, and I think that's going to be the most likely road we're going to follow for the remainder of this decade and perhaps much of the next.
posted by troy at 9:35 AM on November 16, 2008

Things have been going downhill for a lot longer than most official sources would indicate. It hasn't been until things started affecting the upper-middle class and above that we've taken notice. To wit: widescale layoffs and plant closings throughout the 90s and early 2000s that hit, mostly, lower-middle class families resulted in a lot of families cutting-back on expenditures as best they could.

Slowly, though, cutbacks started creeping-up the economic ladder. Pay freezes and benefit cuts to white-collar work forces. An increase in white-collar layoffs under the rubric of "right-sizing" or other euphemisms. It seems to me that it was when cutbacks started hitting the white-collar workforce that you started to see the rush to re-fi homes, ostensibly to get a lower payment in order to better cope with the lowered income. And, with that rush, the rise of all the highly questionable products that eventually crashed the system.

Obviously, this is based on what I saw in my region. It's not a tech or economic hotbed of any sort, so I'm sure events unfolded differently.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:39 AM on November 16, 2008

Speaking personally, from the US midwest:

I have my own business offering a service that's often seen by corporations as a way to cut costs, so work has picked up. My biggest client lost their biggest client (firm went bankrupt) but immediately won an account with another firm and passed it along to me. I've received more inquiries from prospective new clients in the last week than I got in months over the summer. So it's my impression that firms that are quick to step in and help other businesses work efficiently will benefit from the downturn.

At the same time, I notice that food costs more, especially prepared food like frozen dinners, so I cook more from scratch and eat out less.

I want a larger cash cushion. For example, I decided not to spend some of my savings on a larger woodstove, so I'm heating my home with a too-small stove until I've accumulated more cash.

Work has slowed for friends who work in new home construction.

The local newspaper reports that demand on food banks is higher than ever.

I'm not putting money into a SEP IRA anytime soon and am keeping it in cash accounts instead. I may dump some money into an HSA right before tax time and hope that the tax benefits outweigh what I might lose in the market.
posted by PatoPata at 11:29 AM on November 16, 2008

Anecdote: my father is a mid-level manager in the credit card retention department of Citibank. While he just got word that he was safe from this round of ~10,000 layoffs, he's been asked to make determinations as to which of the people who work for him are getting their pink slips. Needless to say, there are a lot of nervous people at all levels there at Citi.
posted by DeucesHigh at 12:21 PM on November 16, 2008

From NYC:

The steady temp work I relied on to pay my bills came to a crashing halt in December of 2007. Since then, I have had assignments of a day, a month, six weeks or so, two or three days. But nothing long-term. I had one that was supposed to be long-term but that ended after a week when the firm imposed a hiring freeze and laid off all temps.

My temp agency has laid off some of the counselors who would book the assignments. The head of my agency tells me that it's completely flat-line out there. Nothing. Nothing at all. She's apologetic. It's awkward for her because she likes me and wants to book me somewhere but nobody's returning her calls.

I've noticed that Wal-Mart is advertising aggressively on the local classic rock station; I think they're trying to drum up some business among the newly anxious and price-conscious suburban middle class.

Last week, I was out getting groceries in my neighborhood when I saw a woman begging on the street. This is a pretty solidly working-class and stable neighborhood. I've lived here for almost seven years and that's the first time anyone's approached me like that.

I'm not an economist. I don't know if this is a recession, depression or what-have you. I do know that things really suck right now and that they're going to get a lot worse.
posted by jason's_planet at 12:31 PM on November 16, 2008

From The New York Times:

A Town Drowns In Debt As Home Values Plunge

A story focusing on a small city in California where 90% of all mortgages are now in negative equity -- that is, owing more than the house is worth. "Underwater" in American slang. According to The Times, 48% of all mortgages in the state of Nevada are underwater. 39% of all mortgages in the state of Michigan are underwater. In some localities, the figures are much worse -- there are several zip codes in the Las Vegas area where 75-87% of all mortgages are underwater.

I know that you were looking for more anecdotal evidence but this particular article really opened my eyes to how rotten things are out there for homeowners.
posted by jason's_planet at 12:41 PM on November 16, 2008

There is tons of macro evidence that things aren't great. But from where I'm sitting it's not really that bad at all. Freelancers I know all have more than enough work and are either raising their rates to cut down on the work or looking for people to spill work over to. The one person I know who lost their job got a new one the same week. I've done and won more bids in the last 6 months than I have for years. A coffee shop acquaintance just told me about $50 million in VC funding that her people just distributed. Another acquaintance just had a huge investment in his company. Lines are as long as ever at my favorite restaurants and bars and clubs are packed.

I know of one person who is hit hard, but he bought a house at the top of the market and then got laid off from his construction job. From my point of view, if you didn't buy a house recently or you don't build houses, it's not much to talk about.

The only way out of an economic slump is for people to regain confidence. So while every word above is God's honest truth, it's also a deliberate attempt to counteract the Chicken Little's out there who are making it worse by talking about the end of the world.
posted by Ookseer at 1:22 PM on November 16, 2008

I'm in Worcester, MA USA. Gasoline is back under two bucks a gallon, my company is looking to expand and hire (network security is apparently a good industry to be in at the moment), and I'm thinking about buying a house. I don't have a whole lot of money saved up or invested so I'm not (directly) feeling the effects of the dollar's devaluation. Things are pretty okay, I guess.
posted by xbonesgt at 3:46 PM on November 16, 2008

I live in a town that is losing its GM plant. First it was to close by 2010, but production is now going to halt two days before Christmas, after 80 years. We're not as dependent on the factory as we used to be -- when I was a kid it was 7500 jobs or so on three shifts, well over 10% of the local workforce -- but it's still going to be a well-felt blow to this area as other related businesses will also close. For instance, a subsidized day care facility couldn't keep its doors open, and rumors swirl about some of the mall and big box retailers.

The SUV boom, of course, was fed by the mortgage equity ATM syndrome troy described. No equity? No SUV. There are some people actually blaming NAFTA even though GM is also closing truck lines in Canada and Mexico. A fleeting hope that they might base a car line here in a year or two was probably dashed by the October crisis.

Still, as an area we are head above water, with a new hospital being built.

A more ominous indicator of the potential depth and breadth of this downturn, though, is that my college is laying off 10% of its staff by the end of the academic year. They had 36 students not show up for fall semester, and they are reliant on tuition for their budget.
posted by dhartung at 1:31 AM on November 17, 2008

Holiday jobs
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:15 AM on November 17, 2008

Two different companies where I have friends employed in Dallas have laid off 17% and 10% of their employees, respectively, in the past two weeks. My family has decided no Christmas gifts this year with the exception of any children under age 15. I'd say that's somewhat real; at least, it is to me.

A relative of mine recently lamented that in the past year he lost over $100k in his retirement fund, decimating it by more than half; he can't retire now. I can't even fathom having that much money, so it was shocking to hear.

Most companies I know of where friends work are also forgoing holiday parties this year and halting Christmas bonuses. I'd say this season looks bleak, but I'm already broke, so right now I'm just glad I don't have children. In addition, I've quit putting money in my 401k because it's just vanishing. I can't afford to let that happen. What minuscule amount I do have saved is in bonds. The only things I allow myself to spend money on are bills, groceries, gas and any necessary repairs that arise. No clothing, shoes, gifts, cards, no renting movies, no going out to the movies, no meals out, no dating.

I will let myself buy paint and possibly a storage unit, though. I have put a backup plan in place in case my house gets foreclosed on or I lose my job: stuff in storage, plus an extra bedroom in a friend's house I can stay in if the worst happens.

Never in my life have I preemptively made a plan in case I become homeless. It seems prudent right now, though.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 8:37 AM on November 17, 2008

Thanks for the answers. Just to round it off, and give my perspective, I wasn't trying to be insensitive to people who are having financial problems, but it is seldom clear just how much impact some financial issues have unless you are on the ground.
For example, here in Australia we have heard months of doom and gloom, but I heard a local mayor on the radio saying they had seen no actual day to day impact yet, and I kind of feel that way too, even though everyone has had their retirement accounts brutalised.
Good luck to any of you doing it tough, and I hope I won't be back in six months asking for rat meat recipes.
posted by bystander at 3:39 AM on November 18, 2008

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