How severe is the current recession and how long will it last?

That pocketbook question is being debated in corporate boardrooms, factories and dining rooms across the country, following a frightful January in which the axe fell on an estimated half-million jobs nationwide.

Not surprisingly, even local experts who agree on the root causes of the current financial crisis have starkly differing views of its depth and severity.

In a forum Tuesday sponsored by the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, a panel of economic experts argued that it could take anywhere from 11 months to four years before the economy begins to grow again.

Known as an optimist in economic circles, Art Rolnick, director of research with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, began his comments by reading from a Time magazine cover story.

"The slump is the longest, if not the deepest, since the Great Depression. Traumatized by layoffs that have cost more than 1.2 million jobs during the slump, U.S. consumers have fallen into their deepest funk in years," Rolnick read. "U.S. consumers seem suddenly disillusioned with the American dream of rising prosperity."

Many in the auditorium thought Rolnick was reading from a recently printed Time article. But as Rolnick pointed out, the article in question actually appeared in January 1992 and was describing the recession of 1991 -- an unusually mild recession by historic standards and one that preceded one of the largest expansions in U.S. history.

"It's important to keep our current problems in perspective," Rolnick said after the event. "Here people were worried [in 1992] that the sky was falling ... and look at what happened to the economy. It exploded."

Rolnick argued that the current recession, which officially began in December of 2007, is "not out of the ordinary" compared to past recessions. In fact, the percentage declines in employment and in personal incomes are at the median of the 10 previous recessions that have occurred since 1948. Although the current recession, he noted, has already lasted longer than the postwar average of 10.5 months.

Out of the woods this year?

"There is a very good chance that we'll be out of this recession by the end of the year," he said. "As I tell my wife, this too will pass."

Taking a more pessimistic view was Andrew Winton, chairman of the finance department at the Carlson School of Management, who came armed with a different set of facts to support a very different conclusion: That the U.S. economy may contract for another two to four years, with gross domestic product declining up to 15 percent over that period. "I disagree with Art that this is a typical recession," he said, after the forum. "That's primarily because the banking industry is in much worse shape."

Winton argued that the current downturn could be as severe as the recession of 1982, when unemployment hit 10.8 percent. Currently, the national unemployment rate is 7.3 percent, up 2.3 percentage points since the recession began.

He argued that the United States is undergoing a banking crisis that resembles those faced by Norway in the late 1980s and Japan in the early 1990s. ""In most of these banking crises, you see a run-up in asset prices," he said. "Then ... you have a collapse in real estate that often brings on the crisis." Those real estate price declines typically last anywhere from four to six years, during which time the GDP declines, he added.

Added Winton after the forum discussion: "Given what's happened to the banking system, [the recession] is going to be on the severe end. I would not be surprised if it turns out as bad as the 1982 recession."

However, the panelists did appear to agree did one thing: massive fiscal stimulus packages won't be enough to reverse the cycle of deflating asset values, rising job losses and declining output. Congress is debating an economic stimulus package that could cost taxpayers approximately $900 billion. The Senate began voting Tuesday on amendments to stimulus legislation that lawmakers hope to get to President Obama's desk by mid-February.

"Without a resolution to the credit crisis, the boost from the stimulus package probably won't last more than a few years," said John Beuerlein, chairman and chief investment officer at Marquette Asset Management, and one of the panelists. He cautioned that banks may use some the additional capital provided by the federal government to buy risk-free government securities and "it will not flow to the economy."

Rolnick said he disagreed with the idea that a government stimulus package would kick-start demand and thus enable the nation to spend its way out of the recession. A stimulus program won't help if companies are producing too many goods and services that people don't want, he said.

"Giving General Motors money to produce more cars that we won't buy won't solve anything," he said. "Some firms simply have to reinvent themselves or go out of business."

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308