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Speaker: Recession a 1970s repeat

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas — in the mid-1970s.

During that recession, the stock market tumbled almost 50 percent, then rebounded to recover all of that and more.

The mood in the country was grim after the resignations of President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew. The war in Vietnam had split the country.

A reformer, Jimmy Carter, was elected president and Democrats assumed more power in Washington. Back in California, the unconventional Jerry Brown would become governor.

Amid a weak dollar and soaring gold prices, inflation would prove to be a stubborn problem that plagued the economy for years.

If all this sounds eerily similar to what's going on in the country today, it should, said Rich Karlgaard, the publisher of Forbes magazine.

He spoke Thursday to an audience of farmers, suppliers and other ag interests at Modesto Centre Plaza. For the second consecutive year, he was the keynote speaker at the Almond Board of California conference.

Karlgaard said the current recession is more like the severe one in the 1970s than one in the early 1990s. Climbing out of it will be a long, slow slog. "I think we are going to see only 1 to 2 percent growth a year, which is not that robust," he said.

Inflation isn't here, Karlgaard said, but you only have to watch the sagging dollar and the surging price of gold to know it's coming. "We don't have inflation now, but it will show up in two or three years," he predicted.

A long wait for jobs

He doesn't see any improvement in unemployment, either.

"Jobs won't be coming back in any meaningful way anytime soon," Karlgaard said. "Men without college educations are really suffering because of the dramatic job losses in construction and related businesses."

It's an employment sector that's been particularly hard- hit in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. When the housing bubble burst in the valley four years ago, construction and finance companies closed or slashed jobs. The ripple effect was felt in restaurants, auto dealerships, mom-and-pop shops and big retailers. Jobless rates in the region top 16 percent and are forecast to go higher — possibly 20 percent.

"I think the recovery is going to be lousy," Karlgaard said. "I think the stock market is going to roll over again, because the underlying economy just doesn't support it."

In fact, he believes the current market run-up is just a bull rally in the midst of a bear market that began in 2000 and likely won't end until 2015.

"There will be opportunities, but you'll need to be a nimble investor to move in and out of the market to take advantage of them," he said. "The buy-and-hold strategy won't really work."

Innovation needed

The good news is that innovation and entrepreneurship were two hallmarks of the mid-'70s that helped lead the nation out of the doldrums. Karlgaard mentioned Federal Express, Microsoft, Southwest Airlines and Apple as examples of companies that reshaped the business landscape.

He said those businesses were created by entrepreneurs who understood that deep shifts were occurring in the economy. Karlgaard said they recognized they could take advantage of those opportunities by using new technologies and innovations, such as delivering packages overnight, to challenge traditional businesses.

Companies that couldn't adapt, he said, didn't do well and many didn't survive.

The good news for almond growers, Karlgaard said, is that in today's economic climate, they have a product that has two qualities consumers demand: value and nutrition.

Although the margins in the food industry remain tight and value tops the list of what drives most consumer purchases, he said, the health benefits of a crop such as almonds will continue to make it an attractive product.

Bee City Editor David W. Hill can be reached at dhill@modbee.com or 578-2336.

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