5 Doomsday Scenarios for the U.S. Economy

By Derek Thompson and Daniel Indiviglio

It's been a brutal summer for the economy. The housing sector, like a balloon batted in the air one last time by the government credit, resumed its inevitable fall. Economic growth slowed to a lead-footed 1.6 percent, and job growth is even more anemic. Meanwhile, consumers are cranky, the trade gap is gaping.

Most signs point to a slow and steady recovery, but what if the pessimists are right, again? What if the United States isn't in the slow-lane to recovery, but rather on the precipice of another decline -- a double dip?

To see where this re-recession might begin, my colleague Dan Indiviglio and I imagined five financial earthquakes, each with a single epicenter: housing, consumers, toxic assets, Europe, and the debt. The following five scenarios are listed in order of likelihood.

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1. Housing's Mini-Bubble Pops

Perhaps nothing poses as a big of a concern to the U.S. economy as its housing market. It's unclear how the government's efforts to stabilize the market through a buyer credit, ultra-low mortgage rates, and mortgage modification programs will pan out. Did it just create another mini-bubble that's beginning to pop now that the support has been withdrawn?

Here's the scenario. Weak home sales and continuing foreclosures result in climbing real estate inventory. This has two effects. First, it makes new homes even less attractive which further reduces construction jobs. Second, it puts downward pressure on home prices, which makes it harder for struggling homeowners to sell their home to avoid foreclosure and also keeps strategic default rates high, exacerbating the problem. Lower home values encourage Americans to save more and spend less, since their wealth is effectively reduced. The Dow drops and credit markets tighten even further, suffocating private investment just as homeowners bunker down and slash spending. Growth turns negative.

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2. You Break the Economy

You, the American consumer, are reloading savings after a debt-fueled decade. But as any general will tell you, when an entire squad reloads at once, it leaves everybody vulnerable. It's the same with the economy.

Here's the scenario. Consumer sentiment continues to fall slowly, and spending turns negative again. Small businesses hold off to replenish their inventories or add new workers. Wages and hours freeze, and unemployment takes a leap toward 10 percent in October. Congress is paralyzed, because it's only weeks away from the mid-terms. The stock market sees business revenue trending flat, joblessness rising and Congress doing nothing, and it sparks a 300-point sell-off. Americans frightful for their savings cut back spending even more the next month, and overall growth turns negative.

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3. Toxic Assets Return

If you closely followed the bank bailout, then you know it wasn't originally billed as simply throwing money at the banks. Instead, the Treasury intended to purchase the toxic assets from banks, which were the source of investors' uncertainty concerning bank stability. But the Treasury couldn't figure out a way to do this quickly enough to make it effective. As a result, the banks were largely stuck with these bad assets. We just don't know how bad, yet.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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