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Executives see credit and housing as big threats

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[April 18, 2008]  WASHINGTON (AP) -- Turmoil in credit and housing markets will be the most significant threat to growth this year, according to a survey of top financial company executives released Friday.

These executives believe there is a high probability -- 88 percent -- that the country will suffer a recession in the next 12 months.

The responses came from executives whose firms are members of the Financial Services Forum, which represents 20 of the largest financial companies in the country including Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Allstate Insurance and Fidelity Investments.

After credit market tumult and troubles in the housing market, the executives listed the next biggest threats to the economy now as the possibility the government will impose higher taxes or raise protectionist barriers to foreign competition.

"As the U.S. economy slows, trade and economic openness are more important than ever," said Rob Nichols, the president of the forum, a Washington trade group.

He said that U.S. exports accounted for 40 percent of economic growth last year with domestic activity being battered by the slowdown in housing and it was essential that Congress not do anything that could jeopardize future growth in this area.

The survey, conducted in early April, showed that the financial company executives were much more pessimistic than in their last survey, conducted in October.

They marked down the prospects both for growth in this country and globally, reflecting the serious toll from a credit crisis that has forced major financial firms to declare billions of dollars in losses and last month claimed its biggest victim with the forced sale of Bear Stearns, the nation's fifth-largest investment house.

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The Federal Reserve, which has been aggressively cutting interest rates and provided a $30 billion loan to facilitate the Bear Stearns sale to JP Morgan, was given generally good marks by the executives for its handling of the crisis with an average ranking of 3.93 on a scale of 5.

The executives strongly believed that the Fed will cut rates again at its meeting at the end of this month.

Even with further Fed rate cuts, the executives believed that the U.S. economy, as measured by the gross domestic product, would grow by just 0.9 percent this year, down from 2.2 percent GDP growth last year. It would be the smallest GDP increase since the recession year of 2001, when the GDP eked out a tiny 0.8 percent rise for the year.

The executives by a wide margin believed that the current credit turmoil has a ways to go, putting the expectations of further problems at 3.83 on a scale where 5 represented the strong view that the crisis has further to go.

Asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 5 what countries will be driving global growth this year, China was tops with a score of 4.75, followed by India at 4.06. The United States tumbled from No. 3 in the October survey to No. 10 in the current survey with a reading of 3.06.

[Associated Press; By MARTIN CRUTSINGER]

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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