The latest quarterly AP Economy Survey shows economists are pushing back their estimates of when key barometers of health — hiring, spending, economic growth — will signal strength.
In their view, consumers and employers will stay cautious. Households will keep saving. Inflation will remain tame. And unemployment will dip only a bit from the current 9.6 percent rate to a still-high 9 percent at the end of 2011.
In the previous survey in July, the economists predicted unemployment of 8.7 percent at the end of next year. In the survey before that, they foresaw 8.4 percent. Some now think unemployment won't drop to a historically normal 5.5 percent to 6 percent until at least 2018 — several years later than envisioned earlier.
It adds up to a grim picture for the new Congress that begins in January. Voter frustration over unemployment is threatening to cost Democrats their control of the House, and maybe the Senate, in the midterm elections Tuesday.
The new Congress appears unlikely to approve more spending to try to invigorate the economy and the job market. And the Federal Reserve is running out of options.
Yet the economists the AP surveyed still expect the economy to sidestep some threats that had raised concerns in recent months. They dismiss the likelihood of a second recession, for instance, and they think the risk of deflation is remote. Deflation is a prolonged drop in prices and wages, which can make people unwilling to spend.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has expressed concern about deflation — one reason the Fed will likely announce Wednesday that it will buy Treasury bonds to try to further lower loan rates. Lower rates might spur more borrowing and spending and help raise prices.
The economists are sharply split on whether the Fed should do so. And they overwhelmingly oppose another round of government stimulus spending. They think the economy will make steady gains, just more slowly than they had thought earlier this year.
The AP survey collected the views of 43 leading private, corporate and academic economists on a range of indicators, including employment, consumer spending and inflation. Among their forecasts:
— The economy will expand just 2.7 percent next year, scarcely more than the tepid growth predicted for all of 2010. Under an economic rule of thumb, growth would have to average about 5 percent for a whole year to lower the unemployment rate by 1 percentage point.
— Consumers will boost their spending 2.5 percent in 2011, slightly better than the increase that economists envision for this year. But spending would have to rise roughly twice that fast to deliver enough economic punch to lower unemployment. Three months ago, the economists were more optimistic about 2011: They predicted consumers would boost their spending 3 percent.
— Inflation will equal just 1.7 percent next year. That's slightly more than the 1.2 percent predicted for this year. And it's about the minimum level of inflation the Fed thinks a healthy economy needs.
— Americans will keep rebuilding their savings, leaving less money for spending. They're expected to save 5.4 percent of disposable income next year. That's slightly less than the 5.7 percent savings rate predicted for all of 2010. But it's still near the highest savings rate since 1992.
"When you look to 2011, the words to describe the economy are glum, lousy, subpar," says Rajeev Dhawan, director of Georgia State University's Economic Forecasting Center.