Fresh evidence of a global economic slowdown has raised fears that governments around the world may be powerless to reverse it. If the world does fall into back into recession, it could be much harder to escape than the contraction that ended in 2009.
With banks still recovering from a decade-long credit bubble, governments slashing spending to cope with unsustainable debt, and unemployment at levels not seen in decades, a new recession would be “disastrous,” according to Roger Altman, a senior Treasury official in the Clinton administration.
“We could be in for a repeat of the experience of 1937, when America fell back into recession after three years of recovery from the Great Depression,” he wrote in the Financial Times.
Altman was referring to the fact the global downturn of the 1930s technically included two U.S. recessions, from 1929 to 1933 and again from 1937 to 1938. U.S. unemployment peaked at over 20 percent in the 1930s, according to historical estimates, and did not decline significantly until factories began gearing up for World War II.
Two years after the latest U.S. recession technically ended, evidence continues to build that the weak recovery is stalling out. The U.S. economy stopped producing new jobs in August after a string of mostly meager monthly job gains that failed to bring the unemployment rate below 9 percent.
On Thursday, fresh data showed the Eurozone's service sector contracting for the first time in two years; a separate index of the manufacturing sector, which has provided much of the region’s growth, slowed for the second month in a row.
A global stock sell-off that dragged market indices to their lowest level of the year spread to the U.S., where the Dow Jones industrial average was down nearly 400 points.
Until recently, there were hopes that emerging economies in places like China and Brazil could prop up global growth until a stronger recovery took hold elsewhere. But China’s two biggest export markets -- Europe and the United States -- are struggling, and that has cut into demand for Chinese goods. A report out Thursday showed that China’s factories slowed for the third month in a row.
"There is a global slowdown,” Jeavon Lolay, head of global research at Lloyds Banking Group, told Reuters. “There is no doubt the risks of a global recession have grown."
That’s also the opinion of Federal Reserve policymakers, who said Wednesday they saw "significant downside risks" to the U.S. economy after deciding to launch an unusual program of reshuffling $400 billion in Treasury holdings to try to push interest rates lower.
But with interest rates already at record lows, few expect the program to do much to increase the demand for loans. Businesses face weak demand for their products and services and consumers are continuing to work to pay down their debts. Though mortgage rates remain at record lows, millions of homeowners are unable to refinance their higher rate loans because they owe more than their home is worth.
Some analysts argue that the Fed’s latest move (dubbed Operation Twist because it “twists” the relationship between short- and long-term rates), will hurt economic growth because it will squeeze bank profits and lower the income consumers earn on their savings. Public and private pension funds, already under strain, will be even more badly underfunded because they’ll have to set aside more money to generate the same amount of cash to pay retiree benefits.
“In a couple of weeks (Operation Twist) will be a subject for economic history, and the main discussion will be that the Fed is grasping at straws,” former Fed governor William Poole told CNBC. “I think that they have thrown lead into the life preserver, and they are sinking.”
‘Slow motion train crash’
European central bankers appear increasingly unable to contain a widening banking crisis, sparked by the threat of bond defaults in Greece and Italy, Europe’s third-largest economy.
The International Monetary Fund warned Tuesday that Europe and the United States could slip back into recession next year without bold action
"We are seeing a slow-motion train crash in the euro area, where credit contraction risks leading to a new recession by Christmas unless governments face up to the task swiftly and forcefully," Martin Enlund, market strategist at the Swedish bank Handelsbanken told Reuters.
Policymakers in China, the world’s third largest economy behind the U.S. and EU, face their own set of tough choices. Rapid growth rate has fueled inflation that is running at a double-digit rate, according to analysts -- much higher than official targets. To contain inflation, Beijing has raised interest rates five times and lifted banks' reserve requirements nine times since October. If it clamps down too hard, though, a deeper economic slowdown could reverse China's efforts to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.
China is also coping with a banking hangover of its own, after years of massive government lending for expansion of state-owned enterprises an infrastructure upgrades.
"There is a two-tier system within China and I think the lending that's taking place and the percentage of nonperforming loans is now at a level that is disturbing," David McAlvany, chief executive at McAlvany Financial Group told CNBC. "Ultimately, (China's banks) will have to see some comeuppance."