LIANE HANSEN, host:
At the beginning of 2009, many Americans feared that a real economic depression was at hand. In January alone, U.S. employers slashed nearly three-quarters of a million jobs. As we move into the second half of the year, the economy remains in deep trouble, but the sense of panic has been easing. The banking system appears to be stabilizing and existing home sales have been inching back up. So what's the outlook for 2009's second half?
Joining us to assess where we are in this long and painful recession is NPR's senior business editor Marilyn Geewax. Welcome back, Marilyn.
MARILYN GEEWAX: Good morning, Liane.
HANSEN: As I mentioned, we're at the mid-point of 2009, but where are we exactly in this recession? Can we safely say that we're near the end?
GEEWAX: Compared with where we were six months ago, it would be fair to say that the economy is better. Most economists think that we're at about the end of the recession. It's ending sometime this summer. And compared with January, remember then, we had everything falling: jobs, profits, every measure you could think of was collapsing. And people were actually fearing that by this summer we could see even civil unrest in the street.
So that kind of panicky feeling is really fading. But the economy is still lousy. This last week we say the Labor Department said that in June, employers cut nearly a half a million jobs. Oh, okay, that's better than January, but it's still shockingly high. We really need to get back to job growth and we're a long way from that.
HANSEN: There are also a lot of fears about the housing market. As property values plummeted, mortgages became harder to get. How is the housing market doing now?
GEEWAX: Well, we're not seeing the home prices plunging the way they were. In some communities, prices are stabilizing or maybe dropping just a little bit. The industry has come up with data that shows existing home sales are starting to move up just a little bit. But by any realistic measure, the housing market is still terrible - home prices are about a third below where they were in 2006 and our foreclosure rate is still continuing to rise.
HANSEN: Are you able to tell what's likely to happen to the economy in the second half of this year?
GEEWAX: Well, if we turn to the optimists, some are pretty optimistic about a quick snapback. They think there's a lot of pent up demand out there for cars and homes and other items. And then there are some real pessimists who say, you know, look, we still got 15, nearly 15 million Americans looking for work right now. And that big drag on the economy is scary. It could cause an increase in credit card default rates, it could spike home foreclosures again. And there's a lot of fear out there that we haven't seen the worst of it yet with commercial real estate, that that could fall pretty hard.
But I'd say most people, most of the economists are somewhere in the middle. The conventional wisdom is that we're digging our way out of this hole, though very slowly. I think that we can probably count on a little bit of a glow during the holiday season, but I don't think anybody can really look for fireworks by New Year's. Most people expect about two percent growth by the end of the year, maybe a little better than that, but certainly not robust four percent growth.
HANSEN: Let's say you're one of those mildly optimistic people, you have a job, you have a little money to invest. Is it safe to get back into the stock market?
GEEWAX: Well, Liane, I'm not a forecaster myself, but I do listen to what knowledgeable people on Wall Street have been saying. And I think in the last two months, people - there was a pretty good feeling about where stock prices were heading. By the end of June, we saw that stock prices were up a lot from their depths in March.
But this latest job news has got people's nerves jangled again. So now the outlook's pretty mixed. I think everybody is just going to be watching for this corporate earnings that will be coming out in coming weeks. The quarter just ended June 30th, and there's a feeling that with companies cutting labor costs so much that maybe profitability is up. So if we start to see in coming weeks that profits are good, then maybe the optimists are right and stocks will perk up.
HANSEN: Well, we'll be watching closely, too, and we'll have a lot more questions for you to answer. And we'd like to get some of those questions from our listeners. If you have a question for Marilyn or a suggestion for a topic you'd like to hear more about, send your suggestions to our blog, npr.org/soapbox.
Marilyn Geewax is NPR's senior business editor. Thanks again, Marilyn.
GEEWAX: You're welcome, Liane.
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