Recession? What recession? Market is almost unrecognizable from a decade ago

“It’s been a difficult time getting here — but nothing inherently says this cycle has to end any time soon,” said one economist.
Image: Obama Signs Stilumus Package, As Stocks Near Novemember Low
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange during afternoon trading as President Barack Obama is seen on television at the economic stimulus bill signing ceremony Feb. 17, 2009 in New York.Mario Tama / Getty Images file

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By Martha C. White

We didn’t know it at the time, but 10 years ago this week, things started looking up. On March 9, 2009, the S&P 500 closed at 676.53, the lowest point it hit over the course of the Great Recession. Today, the index stands at around 2750.

Although the implosion of the subprime real estate market is most frequently cited as the catalyst for the recession, that historic downturn actually was the result of a perfect storm of economic occurrences, said Dan North, chief economist at Euler Hermes North America. “You had a bust in an asset bubble, an inverted yield curve, and an oil price spike,” he told NBC News. On top of that, a sudden unavailability of liquidity froze banking activities and precipitated a global financial crisis.

The Federal Reserve responded with the extraordinary steps of dropping the benchmark interest rate to 0 percent and embarking on quantitative easing programs that would eventually grow its balance sheet to $4.5 trillion. Both steps were radical ones calculated to pour money into the economy and jump-start lending.

In addition to monetary policy, Congress passed a number of stimulus programs aimed at helping people dealing with foreclosures and job losses.

“The first step in all this was arresting the decline with government programs that tried to take the position of the lender of last resort and basically trying to step in when private capital was too fearful,” said Sameer Samana, senior global market strategist for the Wells Fargo Investment Institute.

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“There’s kind of an inherent tendency for economies to recover,” said Bruce McCain, chief investment strategist for Key Private Bank.

But the economy of late 2008 needed an extra push to get that momentum going. “At the early stage, the monetary backstopping the Federal Reserve provided during the crisis was crucial. It’s less clear that the stimulus they’ve provided since then has been effective for the economy as opposed to the market,” McCain said.

Although the recession was officially over in June 2009, just three months after the stock market hit its trough, many ordinary Americans remained in dire financial straits.

“Consumers have been the key to growth,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics, and until that spending rebounded, the rest of the recovery remained muted, too.

The missing ingredient: jobs. “I think the tricky part is that Main Street is largely dependent on employment prospects,” Samana said. “When businesses are uncertain about the future, they’re very reluctant to add additional workers,” he said.

It took an unprecedented six years before the record 9 million jobs that vanished in the recession reemerged, North said. “We went through the slowest recovery since World War II,” he said. “A lot of that may have been that people just stayed on the sidelines,” aided by expanded unemployment insurance and frustrated by employers who would only commit to filling jobs on a part-time or temporary basis.

Now, a decade after the market trough, unemployment is at a historic low and wage growth is managing to keep abreast of inflation, albeit barely. Financial industry reforms and improved confidence among business leaders as well as consumers have lent stability to the nation’s economic growth.

“We’re in a better place than we were 10 years ago,” Zandi said. “The changes, post-crisis, will make it less likely that we’ll have the booms and the busts. The banking system, for example, holds a lot more capital. That makes it safer. The system has much more liquidity than it did pre-crisis."

“We’ve certainly come a long way with respect to the overall outlook of businesses and investors,” McCain said.

Economic expansion for much of the recovery was muted, but McCain suggests that this pace might have ultimately been critical for the longevity of our current growth cycle. “It’s been a difficult time getting to here, but when you have slower growth, you can have growth for a longer period of time,” he said. “There’s nothing inherently that says this cycle for the U.S. in particular has to end any time soon.”