Isle of Palms -- Economist Paul Bingham was not what you would call an inspirational speaker.
"I wish I had better news for you," said Bingham, as he addressed shipping industry professionals Tuesday at the S.C. International Trade Conference and described the U.S. and European economies as teetering on the brink of another recession.
"Where we are right now is a world economy that is struggling to not fall back into recession," said Bingham, an economic practice leader for Wilbur Smith Associates specializing in analysis related to the movement of passengers and freight. "Looking out to 2014, we're forecasting that we will escape recession, but it will be a very slow recovery."
However, Bingham warned that one shock to the system, such as a reduction in government spending, or not renewing the payroll tax break for workers in 2012, could tip the economy over the edge.
"As governments pull back, that tends to pull the economy down immediately," Bingham said. "If the policy makers don't make the right decisions -- supporting the economy without running the debt up too much -- there is great risk of recession."
"The potential for more damaging political standoffs (in Washington) is high," he added.
There was little silver lining to the economic storm clouds Bingham described, but he did note that inflation has been subdued, commodity prices have eased somewhat, and an ongoing decline in the value of the U.S. dollar against most currencies except the Euro should continue to make U.S. exporters more competitive.
But don't expect an economic boom to follow the bust, particularly in Europe, Bingham told the assembled executives from shipping lines, trucking companies, large exporters, and other businesses.
Few were likely surprised.
That morning, shipping company executives had expressed their own concerns about the economy during a panel discussion.
"I do believe 2012 is a year we will have to watch carefully," said Wolfgang Freese, who in 2009 succeeded Jim Newsome as president of Hapag-Lloyd (America) Inc. Newsome is president and chief executive officer of the State Ports Authority.
Gene Seroka, president for the Americas for American President Lines, agreed there's uncertainty. He was among those who spoke of a need to balance capacity against demand.
There is "ample business to be shared," said Frank Baragona, president of CMA CGM (America), but shipping companies may need to look at capacity reductions or shifting assets to growing markets such as South America.
Newsome said that increasing exports will be good for the SPA and for South Carolina.
"If we can get people to start moving cargo through our port, we think they will eventually put facilities near the port," he said.