Economic outlook Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2008

Hampered by a steady rise in energy prices, a downturn in the housing market and woes in the credit market, the U.S. economy has been sluggish throughout the first half of 2008. The good news, however, is that despite this confluence of negative economic indicators, the economy has shown growth.

“The U.S. economy has been remarkably resilient,” says Dana Johnson, Comerica Bank’s chief economist. “It has grown nearly 1.5 percent at an annual rate over the first half of the year, despite a rise in energy prices, a fall in housing prices and a consistently disturbed credit market.”

Smart Business spoke with Johnson about his economic outlook for the coming months.

What is your economic forecast for the remainder of 2008 and moving into 2009?

The second half of 2008 is going to look a lot like the first half where growth averaged about 1 percent on an annual rate. As we move into 2009, I see the economy accelerating gradually. Six months from now I think the problems with the credit market will be less intense and the credit crunch will be less evident. I also think by the time we reach the end of the year we will have seen a partial reversal in the runup of energy prices — particularly crude oil and gasoline.

We’re beginning to see more evidence that the plunge in building activity is beginning to slow and perhaps the bottoming-out process is underway. The drag from home building is going to become smaller as we move through the second half of the year into 2009. Finally, I think we’re going to continue getting good support to the economy from a narrowing of our trade deficit in real terms. The weakness in the dollar has been underway for about six years and decent growth abroad helps the trade deficit continue to be a source of support for the U.S. economy.

Do you anticipate continued turmoil in the financial and housing markets?

In the near term I certainly do. There are still tremendous concerns about the size of the losses that may result from further defaults, and there is no sign yet of a peak in default rates in mortgages. Until we see clearer evidence that the home price declines are beginning to subside, there is going to be a lot of concern about the condition of financial institutions that, in one way or another, are exposed to the housing market.

California has relied heavily on the subprime mortgage market. What impact will this have on housing prices in the state going forward?

House prices have already declined quite sharply, particularly since last fall, when the credit crunch cut off the flow of new jumbo and subprime mortgages. The decline in home prices has been sharper in California than in most other parts of the country. Over the next year, California home prices are probably going to under-perform against the national average by 10 percent. We are seeing a much more rapid adjustment in home prices in California in this episode than we did in the first half of the ’90s. In the past, adjustments have taken quite awhile, but this one is progressing quite quickly.

Do you expect oil prices to continue rising?

I have given up believing that I can forecast the near-term movements. I do believe that we have been in an overshoot episode. I also believe that any retracement in energy prices is likely to be quite modest compared to the run-up we've experienced over the past six years.

How will this impact the economy as a whole?

The spike in energy prices has created tremendous hardships for any heavy user of petroleum-based products. Overall, the energy price increases have created a drag equal to about $100 billion this year as compared to last year. This figure matches the order of magnitude of tax rebates that people have received. Without the tax rebates there would have been a much more visible impact of the run-up of energy prices on the economy.

One of the bright spots in the current U.S. economy is exporting. Do you expect this trend to continue?

Yes, I do. The dollar has been going sideways since March. It’s beginning to stabilize and when the Fed starts tightening, which I expect to happen sometime next year, I wouldn’t be surprised if the dollar begins to firm a bit. The dollar is very low compared to what it was a year ago, or six years ago, and is creating a good, competitive position for anybody producing goods and services in the U.S. and trying to sell them abroad. Growth abroad has slowed, but not as sharply as it has in the U.S. The combination of growing incomes abroad and the low value of the dollar signals that we will continue to see good growth in our exports in the coming six to 12 months.

DANA JOHNSON is chief economist for Comerica Bank. Reach him at (214) 462-6839 or djohnson@comerica.com.