A number of economists predict that the recession could last into 2010 and that unemployment will top 10%. If the crisis does not deepen into an even longer downturn, there will have to be early signs that the credit crisis is ending and that consumer and business confidence is coming back.
There are a few things to watch for. They are the most likely signs that the economy has bottomed and is about to move up. (See pictures of the top 10 scared traders.)
The first thing to watch for is the S&P 500 to trade flat for three months. While it continues to move down, investors are expecting two or three more quarters of bad earnings. If it spikes up too early, a rally probably cannot be sustained. A flat market at least indicates that investors are becoming more at ease with the economy.
The next signal that the situation is not worsening is car sales. Most of the large manufacturers are experiencing monthly drops of over 45% compared with last year. It may take a year or more for those numbers to settle at drops of closer to 10% to 20%. But, if U.S. vehicle sales stay steady at 25% to 30% down, the consumer is beginning to tiptoe back into the market. The likely cause for this is that extraordinary deals on new cars are becoming attractive to buyers who have cut their debt and can afford to make a modest investment based on very attractive interest rates helped by capital put into the banks by the government. Low fuel prices will help that, and Federal Government tax cuts will give consumers a few extra dollars a month. (See the 50 worst cars of all time.)
From a global perspective, the trading in bonds for developing countries that might default on their debt, nations such as Ireland and Ukraine, need to stop changing hands at distressed levels. If the bets on these nations being able to shoulder that own national financial obligations improve, it is a sign that global credit is becoming available, at least at the sovereign level, and that the IMF has been able to get commitments from the "richer" nations to provide credit to those that are in trouble.
China's GDP has to stop falling and hold at a level of 6% growth. If it drops well below that, it means that demand for inexpensive manufactured goods in the U.S., U.K., and E.U. has dried up completely. If China economic expansion holds, even at levels that are low compared to the last decade, there is a sign that economic activity in the West still has a pulse.
The stimulus package has to begin to pay off. As its earliest investments go into helping states and municipalities keep their employees, cuts in place like California have to level off. As money goes into building the energy grid and broadband makes it into the system, job creation in those sectors has to measurably increase.
Finally, when the government investment in banks and insurance companies drops below a rate of $100 billion a month and begins to slow to much more modest levels as the number of firms that need big bailouts decreases, it means that the period of huge catastrophes has ended and that normal credit availability from the Fed has returned as the major method for feeding the credit markets.
Douglas A. McIntyre
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