WASHINGTON – Brace yourself: The recession is projected to worsen this year. The country stands to lose a sizable chunk of economic activity in 2009 as consumers at home and abroad retrench in the face of persistent economic troubles. And the U.S. unemployment rate — now at 7.6 percent, the highest in more than 16 years — is expected hit a peak of 9 percent this year.
That gloomy outlook came from leading forecasters in the latest survey by the National Association for Business Economics to be released Monday. The new estimates are roughly in line with other recent projections, including those released last week by the Federal Reserve.
"The steady drumbeat of weak economic and financial market data have made business economists decidedly more pessimistic on the economic outlook for the next several quarters," said NABE president Chris Varvares, head of Macroeconomic Advisers.
All told, Varvares and his fellow forecasters now expect the economy to shrink by 1.9 percent this year, a much deeper contraction than the 0.2 percent dip projected in the fall.
If the new forecast is correct, it would mark the first time since 1991 the economy actually contracted over a full year and would be the worst showing since 1982, when the country had suffered through a severe recession.
Vanishing jobs, shrinking nest eggs, rising foreclosures and tanking home values have forced American consumers to cut back, which in turn has caused businesses to lay off workers and slash costs in other ways, feeding a vicious downward cycle for the economy.
The current recession, which started in December 2007, is posing a major challenge to Washington policymakers, including President Barack Obama and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. That's because its root causes — a housing collapse, credit crunch and financial turmoil — are the worst since the 1930s and don't lend themselves to easy or quick fixes.
"As the news on the economy has darkened, so too, have the forecasts," said Ken Mayland, president of ClearView Economics. "We are suffering a period of maximum stress on the economy."
The economy is expected to remain feeble this year — even with new efforts by the administration and Congress to provide relief.
Just over the past few weeks, a $787 billion recovery package of increased government spending and tax cuts was signed into law, the president unveiled a $75 billion plan to stem home foreclosures and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said as much as $2 trillion could be plowed into the financial system to jump-start lending.
In terms of lost economic activity in 2009, the biggest hit will come in the first six months, forecasters said.
NABE forecasters now expect the economy to slide backward at a staggering pace of 5 percent in the current January-March quarter. That's a sharp downgrade from the 1.3 percent annualized drop projected in the old survey.
"Further pronounced weakness in housing and deteriorating labor markets underscore the risks for 2009," Varvares said.
Many economists believe that the current quarter will be the worst of the recession in terms of the bite to gross domestic product, which is the value of all goods and services produced within the U.S. and is the broadest barometer of the country's economic health.
The second quarter of this year also will be a lot weaker, with the forecasters now calling for the economy to contract at a 1.7 percent pace, compared with the prior projection of 0.5 percent growth.
In the second half of this year, the economy should expand, but still less than what economists thought just a few months ago. NABE forecasters believe home sales and housing construction should hit bottom by the middle of the year, which would help stabilize the economy. Home prices, however, are expected to keep falling, according to other experts.
NABE forecasters predicted that when all is said and done the recession will have caused GDP to decline 2.8 percent. That would be "slightly less than the 3.1 percent during the early '70s," according to the survey of 47 forecasters taken between Jan. 29 and Feb. 12.
Even in the best-case scenario, with the recession ending sometime in the second half of this year, employment conditions will be tough.
Some of the forecasters said the nation's unemployment rate could rise as high as 9 percent for all of 2009 and hit 10 percent next year. In 2008, the jobless rate averaged 5.8 percent, the highest since 2003. The survey's median forecast — or middle point — called for the unemployment rate to rise to 8.4 percent this year and 8.8 percent next year.
Companies touching every part of the economy have announced thousands of layoffs already this year and more cuts came last week. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., said it will cut nearly 5,000 jobs, or almost 7 percent of its work force, this year, following the elimination of about 4,000 jobs in the second half of last year. General Motors Corp. and Chrysler, which are asking the government for billions more in aid to remain viable, announced plans to cut 50,000 more jobs, 47,000 of which would be at GM.
The Fed said the unemployment rate could stay elevated into 2011. Some analysts think the jobless rate won't drift down to a more normal range of around 5 percent until 2013 — at the earliest.
Companies won't ramp up hiring until they feel confident that any recovery has staying power. That's why employment is usually the last piece of the economy to reap the benefits of a recovery.
"A meaningful recovery is not expected to take hold until next year," said Varvares.
NABE predicts GDP will rebound in 2010, averaging 2.4 percent over the course of the year. The Fed, too, is forecasting that the economy will grow again in 2010_ and will pick up momentum in 2011.
Even so, the Fed is still guarded about any turnaround.
Given all the negative forces weighing on consumers and businesses, the economic recovery "would be unusually gradual and prolonged," the Fed said.