Disturbing portents were also underscored as the Treasury announced that it was drastically expanding its stake in Citigroup to 36 percent, from 8 percent. General Electric, a corporate behemoth that once seemed impregnable to trouble, announced that it was slicing its stock dividend by two-thirds in a bid to preserve capital.
The fortunes of the U.S. economy have grown so alarming and the pace of the decline so swift that economists are straining to describe where events are headed, dusting off a word that has not been indulged since the 1940s: depression.
Economists are not making comparisons with the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the unemployment rate reached 25 percent. Current conditions are not even as poor as during the twin recessions of the 1980s, when unemployment exceeded 10 percent, though many experts assert this downturn is on track to be significantly worse.
Rather, economists are using the word "depression" -- a subjective term with no academic definition -- to describe a condition of broad and extreme economic distress that remains stubbornly in place for much longer than a typical downturn.
This is more than a matter of semantics. As the government determines spending plans, readying another infusion of cash for banks while contemplating an additional bailout for the auto industry, the magnitude of those needs will hinge on the extent of the damage.
Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Economy.com, now places the odds of "a mild depression" at 25 percent, up from 15 percent three months ago. In that view, the unemployment rate would reach 10.5 percent by the end of 2011 -- up from 7.6 percent at the end of January -- average home prices would fall 20 percent on top of the 27 percent they have plunged already, and losses in the financial system would swell to $3.7 trillion, more than tripling the $1.1 trillion written off so far.
Allen Sinai, chief global economist at Decision Economics, sees a 20 percent chance of "a depression-like possibility," up from 15 percent a week ago. "In the housing market, the financial system and the stock market, we're already there," Sinai said. "It is a depression."
Yet, in drawing up the budget, the White House assumed the economy would expand by 3.2 percent in 2010, with growth accelerating to 4 percent over the next three years.
"It's a hope, a wing and a prayer," Sinai said. "It's a return to a sanguine view of the economy that is simply not justified."
If, as is widely anticipated, the economy grows more slowly than the White House assumes, revenues will be lower, forcing the government to cut spending, raise taxes or run larger deficits.
Economists also criticized as unrealistically hopeful the assumptions by the Federal Reserve as it began so-called stress tests to gauge the health of banks. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said that in the most likely outcome the nation's unemployment rate would reach 8.8 percent next year.
"That forecast just doesn't seem realistic," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.
As federal regulators estimate potential losses at banks, the harshest scenario they are testing entails the unemployment rate topping out at 10.3 percent -- awful, to be sure, and the highest level since 1983, but hardly the worst case.
By Baker's reckoning, the unemployment rate may exceed 12 percent -- the highest level since tracking began in 1948.
By Zandi's estimation, in the most likely scenario, the unemployment rate will reach 9.3 percent next year. The distress in the financial system, the job market and real estate have become inextricably intertwined.
As troubled banks remain hesitant to lend, even healthy companies are laying off workers. As more Americans lose jobs, they are cutting spending, depriving businesses of revenues and falling behind on house, car and credit card payments, multiplying losses in the financial system. As more homes land in foreclosure and would-be buyers fail to secure mortgages, housing prices fall further, adding to the losses of the banks -- a downward spiral.
Many economists expect that the labor data to be released Friday will show that up to 700,000 jobs disappeared in February, lifting the unemployment rate near 8 percent and pushing total job losses more than 4 million since the recession began in December 2007.
Given the forces at play, some experts question the administration's decision to publicize the bank stress tests, as opposed to conducting them quietly.
"It invited the interpretation that this was the beginning of triage for the banks, that we were going to start lining them up and shooting them," said Alan S. Blinder, a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve and a professor at Princeton. "There are some things in the bank supervisor role that you just keep secret," Blinder added, "and I say that as someone who used to be one."
Others argue that the tests could sow needed assurance. "The stress test could create transparency," said Alan D. Levenson, chief economist at T. Rowe Price in Baltimore.
As the word "depression" enters the lexicon and gruesome data accumulates, this much is already clear: Transparency is not for the squeamish.
Levenson noted that the weakening economy was destroying demand for goods and services even faster than the $787 billion stimulus program could replace it.