The fall of 2008 was marked by panic. After the fall of Lehman Brothers, there was widespread talk of a "deflationary spiral," which is:
... a situation where decreases in price lead to lower production, which in turn leads to lower wages and demand, which leads to further decreases in price. Since reductions in general price level are called deflation, a deflationary spiral is when reductions in price lead to a vicious circle, where a problem exacerbates its own cause. The Great Depression was regarded by some as a deflationary spiral. Whether deflationary spirals can actually occur is controversial.
Here is a chart of the year over year percentage change in US inflation for the last five years:
Note the "cliff diving" that occurs in mid-2008: prices literally fell off a cliff. This situation is one of the most serious that can occur in an economy; it says that people have literally stopped buying things en masse. Here is a chart of real personal consumption expenditures (PCEs) for the last five years that shows the drop:
This was the first drop in over 10 years indicating that something fundamental had changed in the US economy. Because PCEs comprise 70% of the US economy, this drop was extremely concerning. However, PCEs weren't the only thing dropping. Real exports were dropping:
As was total domestic investment:
At this point, it's important to remember the GDP equation: personal consumption expenditures plus investment plus net exports (or exports - imports) plus government spending = GDP. In other words by the end of 2008 every major element of GDP was dropping hard and fast.
In other words, by the end of 2008 -- early 2009, it was obvious the economy was at the beginning of an economic death spiral. This is exactly the same situation the country faced in 1929-1933 -- which was originally mishandled horribly.
So, that's how we started the year. In the next article we'll take a look at the economic numbers for the year to see how the economy is faring.