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[ The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 4/10/03 ]

War victory may not defeat economic doubt

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Will an end to the war get the U.S. economy rolling again?
 Yes, it's just what we need. 7% 5
 No, the economy needs a lot more help than that. 93% 64
Total Votes   69
This survey is not a scientific sampling and does not reflect the opinion of the general public, but only of those who choose to participate.

The post-war recovery is getting off to a rocky start.

While events in Baghdad on Wednesday seemed to signal the endgame of the U.S. military campaign in Iraq, a slew of skeptics doubt a quick end to war would spark the long-awaited economic rebound.

Yes, a bounce is coming, but that's about it, said economist Campbell Harvey of Duke University.

Three weeks of fighting may be longer than some administration officials predicted, but it is still fairly fast. And if the war ends soon, a burst of confidence will follow, he said.

Consumers will open their wallets and hopeful companies will hire some of the more than 500,000 people who lost jobs during the past six months.

"But I believe this is a euphoric situation which will be short-lived," he said of Wednesday's developments.

Unlike the Gulf War in 1991, when the fighting ceases now, it will signal only more uncertainty -- about the costs of rebuilding Iraq, political as well as economic. There will be worry about a resurgence of anti-American forces in Iraq, as well as other possible conflicts in the region or with North Korea.

Many risks remain, Harvey said. "It's a long list. In Kuwait, when it was over, it was over."

For months, the more optimistic economists have blamed the woes of impending war for dampening consumer spending and delaying corporate expenditures.

And with each hint of a rapid U.S. victory, the stock market soared and the price of oil fell -- holding out twin promises: a renewed faith in corporate growth and a lighter load for companies and consumers alike.

Both are critical.

Business spending has still not reversed a three-year slide that sent the economy into recession in 2001. And while consumer spending carried the economy for more than a year, there has lately been ominous signs of retreat.

Perhaps most unsettling, economic vitality has flagged despite being fed a staggering amount of stimulus.

Government spending has soared, while the Federal Reserve has sliced short-term interest rates to 40-year lows to try to spur spending.

The economy contracted for three quarters in 2001 and then started expanding. But job creation has not yet accompanied the growth.

Most experts say the economy grew -- but just barely -- in the first quarter of this year. And there are signs that expansion has stalled.

Energy costs have added a painful burden for months, rising to decade-long highs just as winter heating needs peaked. Worries about war in the world's most oil-rich region sent the price of crude to nearly $40 a barrel and the price of gasoline over $2 a gallon in some parts of the United States.

But then, war's approach sent the price plummeting as fears of disruption to supplies seemed to evaporate. Prices bottomed out in the mid-$20s and rose again to about $29 a barrel.

That is the range, from $26 to $29, where it would linger, "all things being equal," said Mark Baxter, director of the Cox Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University.

But the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries -- which produces slightly less than half the world's oil -- is moving to cut production to prop up prices.

If its members follow through, oil could easily cost $30 or $32 a barrel -- far above the historic average. But higher prices will not stifle the economy so long as they are predicable, Baxter said. "Once you have stability, people will feel confident -- they will know how to play and they'll start investing," he said.

U.S. factories are running at only 75 percent of capacity, substantially below the point at which hiring typically starts. Many companies will not expand -- war or not, agreed economist Murray Weidenbaum of Washington University in St. Louis.

"But economies always operate at the margins, and there are some companies that have been holding back because of uncertainty about the war."

The economy is in better shape now than after the 1991 Gulf War, when the nation was still in recession, Weidenbaum said.

However, even optimists set the bar low.

"We are not going to see 4 percent growth, the way we did in the 1990s," said Weidenbaum, who was chairman of President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisors. "I see modest growth."

But skeptics see an economy struggling and perhaps already tipping back into recession -- if it ever escaped.

About 8.5 million are jobless and millions of others are working less than they want. While the unemployment rate is 5.8 percent -- low by recession standards -- many people have dropped from the work force and are no longer counted in the calculation.

Hiring, like other investment, has been paralyzed by uncertainty: Will customer demand match the spending?

"But I don't think it's just the war," said Richard Kopelman, partner in charge of manufacturing at Habif, Arogeti and Wynne, an Atlanta-based accounting firm. "Even if we had a quick resolution of the war, I don't see a quick improvement in the economy."

With the benchmark interest rate at 1.25 percent, the Fed doesn't have much more room to cut. And even if it does, it may not matter to a company that doesn't see profit from investment, he said.

"I don't think they are going to spend more if interest rates fall a half-point."

More than anything, American businesses must realize that the war will not return them to the past, said Clark Winter, global investment strategist with Citigroup Private Bank.

"Americans want to believe that we will return to normal," Winter said. "The rest of the world says, 'that wasn't normal, that was just the 10-year period when you were so dominant.' "

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