WASHINGTON - The Federal Reserve on Wednesday sharply downgraded its projections for the country’s economic performance this year, predicting the economy will actually shrink and unemployment will rise higher.
Under the new projections, the unemployment rate will rise to between 8.5 and 8.8 percent this year. The old forecasts, issued in mid-November, predicted the jobless rate would rise to between 7.1 and 7.6 percent.
The Fed also believes the economy will contract this year between 0.5 and 1.3 percent. The old forecast said the economy could shrink by 0.2 percent or expand by 1.1 percent.
The last time the economy registered a contraction for a full year was in 1991, by 0.2 percent. If the Fed’s new predictions prove correct, it would mark the weakest showing since a 1.9 percent drop in 1982, when the country had suffered through a severe recession.
The bleaker outlook represents the growing toll of the worst housing, credit and financial crises since the 1930s. All of those negative forces have plunged the nation into a recession, now in its second year.
“Given the strength of the forces currently weighing on the economy,” Fed officials “generally expected that the recovery would be unusually gradual and prolonged,” according to documents on the Fed’s updated economic outlook.
Against that backdrop, unemployment — now at 7.6 percent, the highest in more than 16 years — will keep climbing and stay elevated for quite some time, the Fed predicted.
Fed officials anticipated that unemployment would remain “substantially” higher than normal at the end of 2011 “even absent further economic shocks.”
The Fed forecast calls for the jobless rate to dip to between 8 and 8.3 percent next year, and to between 7.5 and 6.7 percent in 2011. All those projections are worse than the Fed’s previous estimates and would put unemployment higher than the normal range around 5 percent.
Employment is usually the last piece of the economy to heal once the country is out of recession and in recovery mode. Businesses are usually reluctant to ramp up hiring until they feel confident that any recovery has staying power.
Under the Fed’s new projections, the economy should grow between 2.5 and 3.3 percent next year. Fed officials “generally expected that strains in financial markets would ebb only slowly and hence that the pace of recovery in 2010 would be damped,” according to the Fed documents.
Fed officials, however, predicted the economy would pick up speed in 2011, growing by as much as 5 percent, which would be considered robust.
Still, given all the economy’s problems, there are risks that the Fed’s forecasts could turn out to be too optimistic.
And a few Fed officials — none are identified — feared that it could take five or six years for the economy and employment to get back into a sustainable mode of health.
On the inflation front, the weak economy should mean that companies will keep a lid on price increases this year as they try to lure skittish consumers.
The Fed expects prices to rise between 0.3 and 1 percent this year, down from a projection of between 1.3 and 2 percent in the fall. Prices will pick up slightly in 2010 and 2011 as the economy strengthens.
For now, Fed officials are more worried about falling prices, than rising ones.
The Fed didn’t use the word “deflation,” which is a dangerous bout of falling prices, but officials noted “some risk of a protracted period of excessively low inflation.”
Falling prices sound like a gift at first — at least to consumers. But a widespread and prolonged decline can wreak more havoc on the economy, dragging down Americans’ wages, and clobbering already-stricken home and stock prices. Dropping prices already are hurting businesses’ profits, forcing them to slice capital investments and lay off workers.
America’s last serious case of deflation was during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Japan was gripped with a period of deflation during the 1990s, and it took a decade for that country to overcome those problems.
Sandra Pianalto, president of the Federal Reserve Bank in Cleveland, projected real gross domestic product to decline sharply in the first half of 2009, followed by a modest upturn in the second half.
“Unfortunately, I don’t expect this to get better until we see stability returning into housing and financial markets,” Pianalto said in a speech to commercial developers in Columbus, Ohio.
Separately, in an address to the National Press Club on Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke pledged anew Wednesday to do everything in his power to lift the country out of recession, while defending the extraordinary steps the Fed has taken to fight the worst credit and financial crisis since the 1930s.
The central bank has slashed a key interest rate to record lows and has launched a series of radical programs in hopes of getting credit — the economy’s oxygen — to flow more freely again to American consumers and businesses, and stabilize Wall Street. Such relief would help revive the U.S. economy, which has been mired in recession since December 2007.
“Recent economic statistics have been dismal, with many economies, including ours, having fallen into recession,” Bernanke said. “In the United States, the Federal Reserve has done, and will continue to do, everything possible within the limits of its authority to assist in restoring our nation to financial stability and economic prosperity as quickly as possible.”
The Fed has been exploring new tools — as well as expanding existing programs — to provide further economic and financial relief, although Bernanke didn’t provide any new details on Wednesday.
With all the Fed’s programs to provide loans or buy debt, its balance sheet has mushroomed to just under $2 trillion, from around $900 billion in September.
Critics worry the Fed’s actions have the potential to put ever-more taxpayers’ dollars at risk, spur inflationary pressure in the future and encourage “moral hazard,” where companies feel more comfortable making high-stakes gambles because the government will rescue them.
Bernanke, however, sought to downplay some of those concerns.
“The credit risk with our nontraditional policies is exceptionally low,” he said, adding that when the economy is on the mend, the Fed’s programs can be quickly reversed “to avoid risks of future inflation.”
The great bulk of the Fed’s lending is generally short term and backed by more than ample assets, Bernanke said.
In other controversial moves, the Fed last year provided financial backing for JPMorgan Chase’s take over of Bear Stearns, and bailed out insurer American International Group. Although this carries “more risk than our traditional activities,” Bernanke said the Fed intends over time to sell the assets it holds from those bailouts in a way that maximizes the return to taxpayers.
The Fed chief also repeated a pledge — made last week — to keep Americans better informed about its efforts to ease credit and financial problems.
On that front, the central bank is developing a new Web site that will provide detailed information on its efforts. The Fed hopes to have the site operational in the coming days.
The Fed’s No. 2 official, vice chairman Donald Kohn, also is leading a committee to review the central bank’s disclosure policies related to its lending programs and its balance sheet, which outlines its efforts to ease credit problems by providing loans and buying debt.
“The presumption of the committee will be that the public has a right to know,” Bernanke said.
In another move to provide Wall Street and Main Street with better insights into the Fed’s thinking about the economy, Bernanke said the central bank will start publishing longer-term projections on economic activity, unemployment and inflation beyond the three years now provided.