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The Shape of Things to Come

L, V, or W? Perhaps a check mark, or something with a wiggly tail? Top economists debate what the recovery will look like.

Much of the recent talk about an economic recovery concerns what shape it will take — literally. Will the plunge and rebound conform to the “V” shape that described the 1973–74 recession, be akin to the “U”-shaped recovery seen after the 1981–82 recession, or sputter into the dreaded “W” — twin recessions (the much-discussed “double dip”) that keep the economy on the ropes for years?

We asked eight leading economists to get graphical with us and describe what shape they believe will ultimately win out. We present them here in descending order of optimism, if for no other reason than because to do the reverse would guarantee that you don’t finish reading the article. And we give the last word to one economist who offers a refreshing dose of humility regarding his profession’s ability to predict what lies ahead.

Employment Improves by Midyear

We’re in a recovery that started in the third quarter of 2009, with real output growing. I anticipate we will see additional job growth by the end of this quarter, with unemployment falling by the third or fourth quarter in a meaningful way, given that we are producing more goods and services. Still, it will take time for people to believe this.

Bio for Mark Fratrik

Consequently, I don’t see a “V”-shaped recovery — a big, dramatic jump like we’ve seen in the past, such as the 1974–75 recession where output returned to its prior path quickly. This is more of a “U”-shaped recovery like the 1981–82 recession. I would like to say it will be a “V,” but my profession tends to look for the clouds instead of the sun coming through, which is why we are called the “dismal science.” The natural inclination is to err conservatively — not promise a big recovery and then end up with egg on your face.

We still need to work through problems like the housing market, unemployment, and consumer uncertainty. And there are some clouds on the horizon like continuing government spending and the specter of taxation to reduce the federal deficit. But I’m relatively optimistic. It was such a significant economic downturn, shaking our foundations and making banks and consumers apprehensive. As banks open their taps, we’ll see new businesses formed that will employ more people, guiding decent employment levels by the middle of the year.

For well-funded companies that weathered the economic storm, the time is ripe for acquisitions. Good companies with a long history of running successful businesses that have solid relations with equity and debt investors should seize this opportunity.

Bio for Bill LaFayette

There Is Less to Fear

GDP went positive in the third quarter of 2009, improved in the fourth, and there are expectations of 3% growth or more for the first quarter of this year. To me, this suggests the shape not of a “V” but of a check mark — down really quickly and then back up fairly slowly.

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