U.S. growth prospects deemed bleak in new decade

ATLANTA Sun Jan 3, 2010 6:55pm EST

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ATLANTA (Reuters) - A dismal job market, a crippled real estate sector and hobbled banks will keep a lid on U.S. economic growth over the coming decade, some of the nation's leading economists said on Sunday.

Speaking at American Economic Association's mammoth yearly gathering, experts from a range of political leanings were in surprising agreement when it came to the chances for a robust and sustained expansion:

They are slim.

Many predicted U.S. gross domestic product would expand less than 2 percent per year over the next 10 years. That stands in sharp contrast to the immediate aftermath of other steep economic downturns, which have usually elicited a growth surge in their wake.

"It will be difficult to have a robust recovery while housing and commercial real estate are depressed," said Martin Feldstein, a Harvard University professor and former head of the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Housing was at the heart of the nation's worst recession since the 1930s, with median home values falling over 30 percent from their 2005 peaks, and even more sharply in heavily affected states like California and Nevada.

The decline has sapped a principal source of wealth for U.S. consumers, whose spending is the key driver of the country's growth pattern. The steep drop in home prices has also boosted their propensity to save.

"It's very hard to see what will replace it," said Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate and professor of economics at Columbia University. "It's going to take a number of years."

One reason is that U.S. consumers remain heavily indebted. Consumer credit outstanding has fallen from its mid-2008 records, but still stands at some $2.5 trillion, or nearly one-fifth of total yearly spending in the U.S. economy.

Another is that many of the country's largest banks are still largely dependent on funding from the U.S. Federal Reserve and the implicit backing of the Treasury Department.

Kenneth Rogoff, also of Harvard, argued that if the U.S. government ever "credibly" pulled away from its backing of the financial system, then a renewed collapse would likely ensue.

He cited government programs giving large financial institutions access to zero-cost borrowing as artificially padding their bottom lines.

"There's something of an illusion of profitability," he said.

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