Economy to falter further in spring

By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Retailers, home builders and many manufacturers should brace for even more rough times ahead, a somber Federal Reserve suggested Wednesday amid growing fears that the U.S. might be sliding into recession.

The Fed’s snapshot of business conditions showed a national economy losing momentum heading into the new year and a future riddled with uncertainty. The persistent housing slump and harder-to-get credit are making people and businesses ever more cautious, it said.

Separately on Wednesday, more big banks reported losses and said people were having trouble making payments for everything from credit cards to cars. Stocks were mostly down for the day, the Dow Jones industrial average declining 34.95 points, or 0.28 percent.

The Fed report was the unwelcome icing on a recent batch of economic indicators – ranging from a plunge in retail sales to a big jump in unemployment – raising concern that the country is heading for its first recession since 2001.

At the beginning of last year, many economists put the chance of a recession at less than 1-in-3; now an increasing number say 50-50 or even worse. Goldman Sachs, the biggest investment bank on Wall Street, thinks a recession is inevitable this year.

The Fed report said the economy did grow during the survey period – from the middle of November through December – but more slowly than during the late fall. Credit problems intensified in December as did troubles in the housing market. That threw Wall Street into new turbulence.

The economy probably grew at a feeble pace of about 1.5 percent or less in the final three months of last year and will stay weak in the first quarter of this year as consumers – major shapers of the nation’s economic health – tighten their belts.

After retailers suffered their worst sales season in five years in 2007, “the outlook for 2008 among retail merchants was cautious,” the Fed said in its report. And the outlook for housing remains gloomy: “weak during the first part of 2008.”

Fallout from a meltdown in risky “subprime” mortgages continued to sock financial institutions. JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Wells Fargo Inc. both reported Wednesday that their earnings fell – raising fresh fears of a widespread lending crisis.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, in a speech last week, pledged to aggressively cut a key interest rate as needed to try to prevent all these problems from plunging the economy into a major recession. That may well mean a bold half-point cut at the end of a two-day meeting on Jan. 30. The Fed started cutting rates in September, but some critics on Wall Street say Bernanke should have acted sooner.

“Clearly there is a high level of caution,” said Ken Mayland, president of ClearView Economics. “Everyone’s guard is up to protect and insulate one’s businesses from the high degree of sluggishness that is expected to prevail in the months ahead.”

With voters expressing angst over the economy, the White House and the Democrat-controlled Congress are exploring ways – including the possibility of temporary tax rebates – to get money quickly into the hands of consumers and help stimulate spending.