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Like Oprah Winfrey or a Michael Bay action sequence, this question needs no introduction or context: Will the U.S. economy continue on its tenuous path to recovery or will we see a double-dip recession?
Here is how some of my fellow analysts have answered that:
Matt Koppenheffer, Fool contributor
This is a tricky one since it depends a lot on how you define "double-dip recession." I've seen Yale economist Robert Shiller define it as any time the economy falls back into recession before the economy has returned to full employment. It gets trickier than there though, since there's no set value for full employment.
If we're to go by Shiller's definition and use a 4% unemployment rate as full employment, then I would say that we're almost sure to have a double dip. Of course, by that definition, this current recession is a double dip from the post-dot-com recession -- December of 2000 was the last time the unemployment rate was below 4%.
So that is to say that the current level of unemployment and the plodding rate at which employment is improving, means that it'll be a while before we see full employment and in the meantime we'll probably have another recession. But what I don't expect is the nasty, piggy-back recession that many seem to be worrying about.
However, the companies that I've been focusing on lately eat recessions for breakfast. Take Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT ) for instance. The company is continuing to expand its global presence while shoppers are increasingly turning to Wal-Mart for everyday needs like groceries. If we double-dip, consumers will trade down to Wal-Mart to save money, and if we don't, the company's core customer base will shop more. Either way, Wal-Mart wins.
Rick Munarriz, Fool contributor and Rule Breakers analyst
There may be debt concerns and political tension brewing overseas, but I like our country's chances of clawing its way out of the economic cesspool this year.
The pent-up demand for leisure and sensible luxury is being met. Auto sales have been on a tear since last summer's cash for clunkers jump-start. Last year was a record year at the box office. Every iPhone launch seems to draw a larger crowd of early adopters than the previous one.
We've learned plenty as a country during this brutal recession. Extravagance -- in moderation -- works. You're seeing cruise lines bump up their fares. Subscriber-based services that stalled during the downturn are improving. High-end jeweler Blue Nile (Nasdaq: NILE ) posted a 19% spike in quarterly net sales last month.
It's a slow and gradual climb, but that will also help keep it on track.
John Rosevear, Fool Contributor
I have no idea whether the economy will "double-dip" -- and I would argue that neither does anyone else. Is there another wave of bank explosions in our near future? Will China's boom turn out to be a bubble that staggers the global recovery when it pops? Is the Euro really at risk of going away, and if so, what would that mean? Has "peak oil" already passed? Is "peak oil" even real?
We can debate those questions endlessly, but we don't really know. Seeing the future in detail is hard. For any reasonable guess about what is likely to happen, we can find reasonable-sounding experts to tell us why we're wrong (or why we're right). And meanwhile, surprises happen -- nobody foresaw BP's epic well blowout, just as nobody really foresaw all the implications of AIG's implosion in 2008, and even now the long-term implications of BP's well disaster are as murky as the Gulf's oil-filled waters.
Basing your investment decisions around economic prognostication just doesn't seem like a good idea to me. These days, I buy for the long term -- over time, the economy will go up, the economy will go down, surprises will happen, but if I've chosen good companies I should do fine.
Alex Dumortier, CFA, Fool Contributor
I'm in the camp that has been relatively skeptical about a so-called V-shaped recovery. With European states responding to their sovereign debt crisis by tightening the fiscal belt hard, keep in mind that the European Union is the largest economy in the world. I do think the likelihood of a double-dip recession has increased markedly over the past couple of months.
Do I think we are condemned to experience it? No. I think the odds still favor the U.S. skirting the double-dip; however, I am expecting an observable slowdown in the rate of economic growth in the second half of the year. The economy isn't creating anywhere near enough jobs and demand for credit remains weak; the current momentum is clearly deflationary.
In light of this trend, I think the "high quality" theme makes ever more sense: Investors should favor companies with rock-solid franchises in defensive sectors, such as Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG ) or Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B ) , the latter of which my esteemed colleague Morgan Housel rates a 'buy' right now.
Tim Beyers, Fool contributor and Rule Breakers analyst
I think of a double-dip recession as the natural consequence of the end of stimulus. In this case, I'm defining the end of stimulus in two ways. First, I'm referring to the end of government bailouts of "too big to fail " financial institutions.
Second, I'm referring to a lack of hiring among American corporations. According to Labor Department statistics, the national jobless rate held at 9.7% in May, down slightly from the month before but up from 9.4% last year.
The message? Layoffs haven't left, and we may see more soon. Consider Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL ) , which has had trouble digesting Sun Microsystems. In a recent 8-K filing, the database king announced plans to revise its restructuring of Sun's operations.
"The Amendment further reduces the size of Oracle's combined workforce primarily in Europe and Asia, eliminates redundant costs resulting from the acquisition of Sun and reflects improved efficiencies in operations."
Maybe we shouldn't read too much into this. The 8-K refers to Europe and Asia, after all. But companies have to be hiring in order to keep a stimulus-short economy from flatlining once more. I'm not seeing enough signs of that.
Morgan Housel, Fool contributor
The record of people predicting these things is absolutely pitiful, so I won't insult you with a prediction. I'm shocked at how much credence we give to forecasters given their track record. I went back and looked at news articles from late 2007 and early 2008 -- the consensus was overwhelmingly predicting we'd avoid a recession, even though, in hindsight, we were already in one.
However, it's reasonable to think that the aftereffects of fighting this recession, namely growing sovereign debt loads and markets that panic at whiffs of imperfection, will mean more frequent recessions in the future. Will that mean recessions every 3-4 years, rather than every 5-10 years? It could, and that certainly makes notoriously cyclical companies like Alcoa (NYSE: AA ) and Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT ) less attractive long term. So if we fall back in recession within the next year or two, you can call it a double dip, or you can just call it the next recession. I don't think the timing matters.
But really, I think most investors would be better off if they stopped thinking these things. If you spend more time focusing on things you can control -- saving, living within your means, buying cheap stocks -- you'll probably do better and be happier.
Those are our thoughts on the state of the economy. Share yours in the comments section below. For some individual stock ideas, check out our roundtable on the best dividend plays.