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U.S. Economy Shrinks In Last Quarter Of '08

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The grim financial numbers got even worst today. The last three months of 2008 brought the worst performance of the U.S. economy in more than 26 years. Now that may not be news for most Americans, but the troubling details were all there today in the government's report on the fourth quarter gross domestic product. NPR's John Ydstie has more.

JOHN YDSTIE: The headline in the government's report was that the U.S. economy was shrinking at a 3.8 percent annual rate at the end of last year. At the White House, President Obama took note as he was launching a task force to focus on helping the middle class.

President BARACK OBAMA: This isn't just an economic concept. This is a continuing disaster for America's working families. As worrying as there numbers are, it's what they mean for the American people that really matters and that's so alarming. Families making fewer purchases, businesses making fewer investments, employers sustaining fewer jobs.

YDSTIE: Indeed, families making fewer purchases and businesses making fewer investments were a huge reason for the sharp downturn in the economy at the end of last year. For the second straight quarter consumer spending fell more than three percent. It's the first time that's happen since the government started keeping track back in 1947. Businesses closed up their wallets, too. A collapse in business investment and things like buildings and new machines was responsible for shaving almost two percentage points off of GDP.

Mr. DYKE MESSENGER (President, Power Curbers Inc., North Carolina): The last quarter of 2008 was awful.

YDSTIE: Dyke Messenger is the president of Power Curbers, a North Carolina company that manufactures machines that makes street curbs and gutters.

Mr. MESSENGER: We cut investments to basically to zero, only what we needed to make to repair machine or vehicles to keep things going. There was no need for any capital investment at all.

YDSTIE: Demand from Messenger's curb-making machines had already fallen in the United States by the middle of last year because the housing crisis halted the construction of streets for subdivisions. But developers the government overseas, especially in oil-rich economies, did continue to buy the machines until the credit crunch and the collapse of commodity markets stopped those orders at the end of 2009. Finally, Messenger was force to layoff 30 employees, more than a quarter of his workforce.

Actually, the top line in today's report, a 3.8 percent drop in output, wasn't quite as disastrous as had been expected. On average, analysts had expected a huge five and a half percent plunge. But Bill Cheney, chief economist to John Hancock Financial, says there's no reason to be relieved.

Mr. BILL CHENEY (Chief Economist, Bill Hancock Financial): The only reason why it came in less awful than it was expected was because of a large item called inventory investment, which basically means goods were piling up unsold.

YDSTIE: Those piles of unsold goods mean there'll be even less demand in the coming months and so fewer jobs for workers. Cheney believes the U.S. economy has not yet hit bottom, and in fact, that the decline is still accelerating. At this point, says Cheney, stimulus from the federal government is the only hope.

Mr. CHENEY: We've got consumers cutting back, businesses cutting back, foreigners aren't spending money, our exports are going down, state and local governments are cutting back. The only potential spender out there is the federal government.

YDSTIE: But Cheney thinks the stimulus package working its way through Congress needs more bang in the early months. He recommends bigger tax cuts and more funding for current government programs like student loans and research grants that have an infrastructure in place to spend the money immediately. John Ydstie, NPR News Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Ydstie
John Ydstie has covered the economy, Wall Street, and the Federal Reserve at NPR for nearly three decades. Over the years, NPR has also employed Ydstie's reporting skills to cover major stories like the aftermath of Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. He was a lead reporter in NPR's coverage of the global financial crisis and the Great Recession, as well as the network's coverage of President Trump's economic policies. Ydstie has also been a guest host on the NPR news programs Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. Ydstie stepped back from full-time reporting in late 2018, but plans to continue to contribute to NPR through part-time assignments and work on special projects.