By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
c.2008 Newhouse News Service
The news on the economic front seems grimmer every day. We may soon be in a recession, if we're not in one already.
But as painful as that would be, downturns have an upside. Consider:
— Prices for energy and consumer goods may fall.
"A recession here and anywhere else will help drive down oil prices," said Alan Reynolds, an economist at the Cato Institute in Washington. "You're going to see a cutback of industrial demand. I'm betting on it in the markets, shorting oil and shorting oil stocks."
Stores may offer bargains to encourage continued spending. "Keep an eye on eBay," Reynolds advised.
— Landlords and those who sell them goods and labor should benefit from an increased number of renters.
"People are a little more careful about whether they want to buy a house," said Bernard Markstein, senior economist for the National Association of Home Builders in Washington. "The rental market has been pretty good. There's probably a little more additional employment there. If you're renting more apartments, you have to get them ready, paint them, clean them."
— Job opportunities will expand in industries that are countercyclical, meaning they grow when the rest of the economy shrinks.
"Bankruptcy professionals are forecasting that 2008 will be a pretty busy year," said Samuel Gerdano, executive director of the American Bankruptcy Institute in Alexandria, Va. "During a recession, firms ramp up — to meet the demand of clients and potential clients."
When bankruptcy lawyers are overloaded, it means more work for administrative help, couriers and other support staff. Bankruptcies rose 40 percent in 2007, according to the institute.
"The debt collection business is booming," Gerdano added. "The debt load is increased on consumers, and those who are in the business of trying to collect consumer debts are busy."
And there is growing demand for organizations that help people find new jobs, from placement services to community colleges, said John Challenger, chief executive of the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas in Chicago.
"In a recession not every industry goes down," Challenger said. "The economy's too complex."
— Some sectors of the economy are recession-proof, meaning the number of jobs will at least hold steady.
"For example, health care is demographically insulated from this kind of a cyclical downturn," said Jared Bernstein, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.
So, often, is the public sector. "As the private sector sputters," Bernstein said, "sometimes the government steps up and picks up the slack."
Telecommunications companies like AT&T Inc. should remain strong, as people are unlikely to stop making calls, said Farrokh Langdana, an economics professor at the Rutgers Business School in Newark, N.J.
"In the old days, a benchmark for recession was long-distance calling would fall off three months before," Langdana said. "That's gone now."
Not only are long-distance calls much cheaper nowadays, many people have packages that count only the minutes, not the distance of the call.
Business services such as information technology processing should stay solid. But technology hardware sales are likely to slide, Langdana said — "You don't need a new printer in a recession."
Traditionally, consumer staples are considered recession-resistant, because people still need to eat, drink and wash their hair. And low-cost retailers, from Wal-Mart to the local diner, will continue to see traffic as consumers look for inexpensive ways to shop and enjoy themselves, experts said.
"Ice cream sales hit a record in the Great Depression," Langdana noted.
— Falling house prices may put a home within reach for some families.
"A lot of people just couldn't afford housing because of those prices," said Tom Papanikolaou, chief operating officer of Pension Builders & Consultants, a financial advisory firm in Cleveland. The housing crisis "gives an opportunity for some first-time homebuyers to get in the market."
To be sure, the gain for a few families doesn't outweigh the roughly $1.6 trillion in household wealth that Americans have lost since November 2006, as tracked by Macro Markets in Madison, N.J.
— Some investors see opportunities outside the stock, bond and CD markets.
For instance, investors in tax liens will enjoy increased buying opportunities as more people fall behind in property tax payments, said Jordan Goodman, the Scarsdale, N.Y.-based author of "Fast Profits in Hard Times."
When an owner fails to pay taxes, the local government places a lien on the property. An investor can buy the lien, with the money going to the government, and then collect any interest or penalties once the homeowner pays up.
"There are far more liens than there are investors," Goodman said.
He projects yields of 8 percent to 25 percent, depending on local market and rules, which would-be investors should research. If the owner defaults, the investor can buy the property for the amount of the delinquent tax — a tremendous value for those with enough capital.
Similarly, payday loan funds boom during a down economy, Goodman said.
And the falling dollar makes non-dollar denominated certificates of deposit more attractive. "Americans are putting a lot more money overseas" through sites like Everbank.com, Goodman said.
— Finally, recessions are like a colonic. They're uncomfortable when they're happening, but once they're over, things are cleaner and healthier.
At the household level, we're reminded that good times don't last forever, and begin to break some bad financial habits.
"Most of us are overextended in our debt," Langdana said. "This may be a good time to retrench."
As for the economy at large, recessions weed out companies that are inefficient, uncompetitive or offering obsolete products. After a downturn, the businesses left standing will have strong growth potential.
"Recessions are kind of like forest fires that clear away underbrush and make way for new growth," Challenger said.
This article was originally published on Wednesday, January 30, 2008, by Newhouse News Service.
Recession Downturn Has Its Upsides
By Katherine Reynolds Lewis