WASHINGTON — The nation is on track to build fewer homes this year than at any time since the end of World War II, adding to the woes of an economy that analysts said Friday has almost certainly entered a recession.
While the economic outlook darkened even further with bad reports on layoffs and consumer confidence, it was one of the quietest days since the financial meltdown began a month ago.
A monthly survey by the National Association of Home Builders showed sentiment among home builders hit a record low in early October.
David Seiders, chief economist for the group, said builders are being hit by a double whammy from the financial turmoil: It's harder for them to get loans to pursue new houses, and more difficult to sell those they do build.
He forecast that builders will keep slashing production in coming months, with construction starts for new homes and apartments totaling just 936,000 this year, the lowest level since 1945.
"The builders are telling us that the financial crisis is really hurting because people justifiably have no idea where things are going," Seiders said.
Before the markets opened, President Bush went to the headquarters of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to say that the $700 billion financial rescue package was "big enough and bold enough to work."
But he cautioned that it would take time to unlock credit markets. And analysts said new data released Friday showed it's probably too late for the economy to avoid a recession.
Many of them said they now had recessions in their forecasts, believing that the overall economy, as measured by total domestic production, probably shrank in the July-to-September quarter, dragged lower in part by the continued plunge in housing.
"I don't think there is any ambiguity with respect to whether we are in a recession," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com. "I think it actually started at the end of last year, and because of the financial panic we are going through now, it is likely to last another year."
Other economists said they were looking for at least three consecutive quarters of contraction, reflecting in part the fact that consumers, who account for two-thirds of total economic activity, are showing the strains of the biggest upheaval in the financial sector in 70 years.
A new University of Michigan/Reuters survey showed consumer confidence plunged in early October to its second-lowest level in the past 28 years.
"Concerns about falling employment, incomes and wealth have overshadowed relief from lower energy prices," said Sara Johnson, an economist at Global Insight, a Lexington, Mass., forecasting firm.
The Commerce Department said Friday that construction of new homes and apartments dropped by a bigger-than-expected 6.3 percent in September to an annual rate of 817,000 units, the second weakest performance in government statistics dating back to 1959. The only weaker monthly showing occurred in January 1991, when the U.S. was in a recession and going through a similar painful housing correction.