Dow's back at 9,000: Does that mean the recession's over?

By passing the 9,000 mark, the Dow Jones industrial average may have unofficially ended the Panic of 2008.

Experts say the stock-market milestone crystalizes a new phase in the economic retreat that has wiped out trillions of dollars in wealth, sent unemployment soaring and vaporized home equity across South Florida.

The economy remains in a shambles, economists say, and forecasts call for a slow and weak recovery that will leave millions jobless across the country for years. But they said the economy has shed the panic that still influenced global and local financial decisions when the Dow last finished above 9,000 in early January.

"In January, there was no sense that there was an end in sight to the recession," said Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida. "I was referring to it as being in the shadow of the valley of death. There was no talk of green shoots. There were no signs of recovery. There was nothing."

What kind of a difference does six months make? South Florida's job market has gotten much worse. The local housing market has gotten less worse. And corporations, thanks to widespread job cuts, have been surprisingly profitable.

It all amounts to an economy that experts see as both more predictable and much more poised for a rebound. In fact, some economists say the national recession may already be over. If not, it will probably be over by the winter — when most analysts predict the economy will start growing again.

"It looks like the economy has bottomed out, and we may actually be seeing some modest improvement," said Mark Vitner, an economist with Wachovia who tracks the South Florida economy.

Vitner and others caution that Florida's economy will probably stay in recession longer than the rest of the country, given the Sunshine State's dependence on vacation spending, retirement homes and real estate.

Big worries remain for the national economy, too: Governments faced with less tax revenue may default on debt sold to Wall Street, interest rates could soar from the federal government borrowing so much money, and the stock market could dive in the face of either a minor spook or a major shift in good earnings news turning bad. Even a small shift in perceptions could send Wall Street heading for the exits again.

But for now, analysts see the financial arrows pointing up, not down.

The Dow ended the day above 9,000 on Thursday for the first time since Jan. 6. On Friday, the floor held, ending the week at 9,093 — higher than it has been since Nov. 5. That's still down 20 percent from where the Dow was a year ago — before Lehman Brothers failed, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were rescued, and Washington raced to prevent a collapse in the global banking system.


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