December 5th, 2008
07:12 PM GMT
LONDON, England - This is all getting seriously ugly. The U.S. labor market shed some 533,000 non-farm jobs in November, and it now turns out that in September - before the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the consequent severe volatility on global stock markets - U.S. unemployment was already starting to surge.
It was just a few days ago that we were told the gurus at the U.S. National Bureau for Economic Research had decided that we could use the word "recession" to describe the economic conditions in the United States. But now, with jobs disappearing fast, confidence in shreds and the "Big Three" carmakers holding out the begging bowls in Washington, the word "depression" is starting to be on everyone's lips.
I admit to being the eternal optimist. I'm not ashamed to say so - I would actually hate to be thought of as a pessimist - but must also confess that it comes with a big personal price tag: for example, ever hopeful, I hung on in there in the stock market for longer than was wise. Watch Michael O'Sullivan of Credit Suisse discuss Europe's options
So it pains me to write this, but given that this recession has already lasted longer than many of its peers - and is widely forecast to last longer than most of them – perhaps we can no longer rule out a depression, a prolonged and dramatic downturn lasting well into 2010.
It's a scenario nobody wants. But every government and every central bank in the world is now united in fighting to avoid it
Hours before those U.S. labor market numbers stunned financial markets, Europe was launching a broad-fronted counterattack. The European Central Bank, the Bank of England and Sweden's Riksbank slashed their key interest rates; in the case of the ECB, the 0.75 percentage point reduction was the biggest cut in its 10-year history. In Germany, the Bundestag voted through the federal government's $39 billion fiscal stimulus package, just as the French President Nicolas Sarkozy chose the car-making city of Douai to announce a similar package worth $32 billion.
In fact, each day now brings news of European Union leaders and the European Commission working closely together to show they are putting up a united front against the recession. But what is striking is that nobody says they can stop it in its tracks, whatever they do. The most they can do, say most economists, is soften the pain of recession and ensure it lasts no longer than it has to.
All this comes at a price. France's latest effort to boost its economy will probably lift its national debt to 3.9% of GDP, and like all prudent governments, it will have to pay that back out of the taxpayer's pocket once normality has returned. Virtually every European government will be doing the same: borrowing big-time now, and repaying later.
Central banks also face a dilemma. They have had no choice but to loosen the monetary floodgates in an effort to induce the commercial banks to start lending again; that is essential if businesses are to invest and employ more people, and if individuals are to restart consumer spending.
But lower interest rates take many months to generate their full impact on the economy, and central bankers worry that growth will snap back, forcing up prices and unleashing inflation.
Imagine trying to drive a car along a highway with steering that only responds, say, 30 seconds after you've turned the wheel. How long before you dive into the ditch?
So there is an argument which says that governments and central banks might do better to stay on the sidelines and let the recession take its course rather than take expensive and risky measures which are never going to stop it anyway.
What do you think? Are Europe's governments and central banks doing enough to fight off recession, apart from avoiding policy measures which might make things even worse? Should they actually bother to do anything? Are they just making things worse? Watch Michael O'Sullivan from Credit Suisse Asset Management answer your questions
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