Is Florida ready to go retro?
Back to the '70s, not in terms of fashion but in terms of finances.
Comparisons to the Great Depression aside, the country's burgeoning economic slump is drawing sharp parallels to the early 1970s — the last time the stock markets behaved in such a consistently lurching manner indicating utter lack of investor faith; the last, long-running "secular" bear market.
Raymond James chairman Tom James gets nostalgic, but not in a good way. "I'm still amazed at how tough this is, because I haven't seen anything like this since '73, '74," said the head of the St. Petersburg financial services company. "And nobody really remembers what it was like, because we're far enough away."
The circumstances aren't exactly the same. The 1973 turndown was fueled by a crippling oil embargo and extended by surging inflation. This one had its roots in a housing bust and the ripple of bad mortgage loans. It was pushed into overdrive by fearful financial institutions that cut off the flow of credit.
The Florida of 2008 also looks a lot different from 35 years ago. It's much larger, more globally connected and far less reliant on tourism. But if you could go back again, it offers a scenario of how Florida's shifting fortunes may play out.
A. Gerald "Jerry" Divers, the septuagenarian president of Bank of Tampa, was making loans and working in the trust department at the former Exchange Bank (now part of Bank of America) in the early 1970s.
He rattles off several eerie similarities between then and now. Like most Florida recessions, a housing downturn came first. In the '70s, the core problem was speculative landowners saddled with lots they couldn't develop; this time, it was home builders and owners saddled with houses they can't sell.
Then came the broader downturn that's being replicated, with everyone from lawyers to car dealers to lawn service companies seeing fewer customers.
One telltale sign Divers notices is that, just like 35 years ago, there's a big chill on changing jobs. Bank of Tampa used to have 10 to 12 open positions at any time. Now there are none, as even entry-level bank tellers are unlikely to change jobs in this climate.
"And when an opening does come up, you'd find 20 to 30 people to fill it," he said. "That frankly is what we're feeling now."
So what would a prolonged recession look like in Florida?
• More breathing room at schools and day care centers. Nearly ever major recession has been accompanied by a drop in the birth rate as hard-pressed couples stall starting a family or have fewer kids. Between 1973 and 1976, the U.S. fertility rate fell every year, only climbing again post-recession.
• More elderly workers as retirement dreams are postponed.
• Cheap prices. Short-term, it may cost less to buy a car, clothes or a house as fewer shoppers usually triggers deflation. Long-term, the Federal Reserve's pumping of money into the system could fuel inflation, as it did in the late 1970s.
• More burglaries and robberies. There are conflicting opinions here. But Bruce Weinberg, an associate professor of economics at Ohio State University, said his research, stretching back 30 years, shows a pattern of crime rates increasing in tandem with a weak labor market.
"That's particularly true with property crime or crimes with financial motives like robbery," he said.
• Tighter credit. As we're seeing already, many consumers are finding it harder to qualify for a credit card and carry large balances. Late fees will rise.
It'll be a rude awakening, predicted Ben Bishop, who bought the Allen C. Ewing & Co. investment banking firm in Jacksonville back in 1973, a period when credit wasn't so easy. Look for more bank failures, consumer defaults and bankruptcies as the "deleveraging" process unfolds, Bishop said.
Who'll do well this time? Hospitals, consumer good companies (think Procter & Gamble) and purveyors of inexpensive entertainment. During the Great Depression, the motion picture industry did well as people sought to satisfy a need for affordable diversions.
Who won't do well? A longer list: the service industry, for starters. Americans can't live beyond their means with neither easy credit nor much home equity.
Joe Consumer will eat out less, cut back on shopping sprees, and take fewer flights and vacations. Businesses have cut back on advertising and perks. Retailers are bracing for a brutal holiday season.
As housing prices fell and construction dried up, Florida's job losses have mostly been in home building, construction-related manufacturing, financial services, wholesale trade, and retailing.
The next stage, Wachovia economist Mark Vitner forecasts, is job losses across a broader spectrum.
"Tourism has also held up relatively well so far," Vitner said. "That is not expected to continue. The tourist and convention trade tends to respond to swings in the national and global economies, which slowed in the first half of the year and are now in recession."
Raymond James economist Scott Brown predicts U.S. unemployment will rise to 7.5 percent by the middle of 2009, likely higher in Florida. "And there's a danger things could get a lot worse."
Brown and fellow economist David Denslow at the University of Florida have pushed back statewide recovery forecasts to 2010 or 2011. And recovery of devastated stock markets could be years later.
After the Great Depression began, it wasn't until 1958, 29 years later, that the market reached its pre-Depression peak, adjusted for inflation. By a similar measure, the bear market that included the 1970s recession was nearly as long, extending 24 years until 1992.
Divers, for one, believes Florida's boom-and-bust cycle won't bounce back again as quickly or strongly as it has after past recessions. Retirees elsewhere in the country can't afford to sell their homes and make the trek southward. And those that can sell are often lured by cheaper options in Georgia and North Carolina which don't come with the property insurance and tax issues dogging Florida.
Then again, Divers said, "I'm looking out my window on Tampa Bay on a beautiful day, and you cannot do this in south Georgia.
"It'll take longer (to come back) but it'll work."