When will this wretched economy bottom out?
The recession is already in its 15th month, making it longer than all but two downturns since World War II. For now, everything seems to be getting worse: The Dow is in free fall, jobs are vanishing every day, and one in eight American homeowners is in foreclosure or behind on payments.
But the economy always recovers. It runs in cycles, and economists are watching an array of statistics, some of them buried deep beneath the headlines, to spot the turning point. The Associated Press examined three markets - housing, jobs and stocks - and asked experts where things stand and how to know when they've hit bottom.
None of them expects it to come anytime soon.
HOW BAD IS IT?: The U.S. unemployment rate hit 8.1 percent in February, a 25-year peak. The nation has lost 4.4 million jobs since the recession began in late 2007.
The job cuts began early last year, as the housing and construction industries slowed down. The collapse of the financial industry in the fall battered white-collar workers. Soon, layoffs spread across industries and income levels.
HOW MUCH WORSE COULD IT GET? The darkest days for the job market are almost certainly still ahead. With spending weak and credit markets stalled, experts think the economy will probably shed a total of 2.4 million jobs this year. That would mean an unemployment rate above 9 percent.
That would easily surpass the 2001 and 1990-91 recessions but trail the 10.8 percent rate of December 1982. Those expectations could be optimistic: The government's "stress tests" to check the strength of banks' balance sheets assume a 10.3 percent rate.
The job market will probably be weak for years, even if the economy starts to turn around next year. The unemployment rate may not fall back to its pre-recession level of 5 percent until 2013, according to Moody's Economy.com.
WHERE'S THE BOTTOM?: Economist Sophia Koropeckyj, a managing director at Moody's Economy.com, is keeping an eye out for two signs - an inching up in companies hiring temporary workers and a rise in the number of hours worked by those who have managed to keep their part-time and full-time jobs.
When business conditions improve, employers hire temporary workers first, she said, and a pickup in permanent hiring wouldn't be far behind. Koropeckyj estimated that could come in mid-2010.
HOW BAD IS IT?: The median price of a home sold in the United States fell to $170,300 in January, down 26 percent from a year and a half earlier, according to the National Association of Realtors.
But that figure masks the complexity of the market. Price drops have been far steeper around Phoenix and Las Vegas, where new homes sprouted everywhere during the housing boom, than, say, in Detroit, where economic problems predate the recession.
And even within a single metro area, price declines vary sharply. Faraway suburbs, where many buyers stretched to qualify for mortgages, have been hit harder than city centers.
This housing crash has spread pain more widely than any before it. Home prices fell about 30 percent during the Great Depression, according to calculations by Yale University economist Robert Shiller. But the nation was less concentrated in urban centers then. And a much smaller proportion of adults owned homes.
Other housing downturns in recent decades have been regional. This one is truly national. Prices in the fourth quarter of 2008 fell in nearly 90 percent of the top 150 metro areas, according to the Realtors group. And 5.4 million homeowners, about 12 percent, were in foreclosure or behind on mortgage payments at the end of last year.
HOW MUCH WORSE COULD IT GET?: The Federal Reserve estimates home prices could fall 18 to 29 percent more by the end of 2010. Declines will probably be less severe in cities with healthier economies that don't have a glut of unsold homes, like Tulsa, Okla., and Wichita, Kan.
The nation's overall economic health is vital to the health of housing. "History tells us that as long as we're losing jobs, that's not good news for the housing market," said Nicolas Retsinas, director of Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies.
WHERE'S THE BOTTOM?: Susan Wachter, a professor of real estate at the University of Pennsylvania, is watching the backlog of unsold homes. At January's sales pace, it would take about 9½ months to rid the market of all those properties. A more normal pace would be six months.
Once foreclosures level off and the backlog is cleared, Wachter says, the housing market can begin to recover. But even with the Obama administration directing $75 billion in bailout money to stave off foreclosures, most economists don't expect home prices to bottom out before the first quarter of 2010. And don't expect an explosive rebound: Price increases will probably be modest when they come.
HOW BAD IS IT?: The Dow Jones industrial average and the Standard & Poor's 500 index have lost more than half their value since the stock market peaked in October 2007. It's the worst bear market since the aftermath of the crash of 1929, when the Dow plunged 89 percent and the S&P 500 index tumbled 86 percent.
HOW MUCH WORSE COULD IT GET? Analysts generally think Wall Street has endured the worst of the bear market. But many of those same analysts never thought the market would fall this far.
Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Harris Private Bank in Chicago, said the Dow could fall to 6,000 if the economy slows much further and unemployment rises well past the current 8.1 percent. He pegs the likelihood of that at about 30 percent. Others are more pessimistic. Bill Strazzullo, chief market strategist for Bell Curve Trading, contends the Dow might fall to 5,000 and the S&P to 500.
WHEN WILL THE BOTTOM COME?: In downturns over the past 60 years, the S&P 500 has hit bottom an average of four months before a recession ended and about nine months before unemployment hit its peak.
Investors will be looking for turnarounds in housing, lending and employment, plus signs that consumer spending has picked up. Then market players would be more likely to move their money from safe havens, such as gold, back into stocks.
Other investors may look to obscure indicators such as the Baltic Dry Index, which tracks the cost of shipping iron ore, grain and other materials. Rising rates can indicate demand for raw materials is increasing, which suggests a strengthening economy.
But most of all, traders are waiting for a sudden spasm of selling known as capitulation. That wrings fearful investors out of the market, and as they rush out, bargain-hunters rush in. Capitulation would trigger a huge plunge in prices and frenzied trading volume.
Many market experts say the bottom of the stock market could come in the second or third quarter of this year. And the recovery, whenever it comes, could be as breathtaking as the fall: Since 1932, the S&P 500 has gained an average of 46 percent in the year after stocks have hit a bottom.