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"Talk of a downturn is in the air," said Peter Coy at Bloomberg. After U.S. stocks kicked off 2016 with their worst two-week start ever, "people who ordinarily ignore economic forecasters are eager for whatever intelligence they can glean." Unfortunately, the data is more contradictory than clear. Market bears point to oil prices that have plunged below $30 a barrel, a strong dollar that's weighing down U.S. exports, and declining corporate profits as reasons to worry. Then there's China, where slowing economic growth has driven domestic stock prices down 40 percent since June. Market bulls counter that the U.S. economy has added more than eight million jobs in the past three years, Americans have less debt, and cheap oil is putting more money in consumers' pockets. Most economists are also confident the economy will keep growing. "Then again, those soothsayers weren't predicting a recession at the start of 2008, either."

If history is any guide, the U.S. economy will weather the current market carnage, said Jeffry Bartash at Market Watch. It's true that all 11 recessions since the end of World War II have coincided with falling stock prices, "but not every bear market has been an omen of an impending recession." In more than half a dozen instances over the past seven decades, markets have plunged "without any ill effects on Main Street." The key is the "underlying health of the economy." When it's doing well, "the U.S. has easily brushed off Wall Street havoc." Strong job growth, record auto sales, and people buying homes at a post-recession peak aren't exactly "signs of impending doom."

That's the spin, said Richard Rahn at The Washington Times. But I don't put much stock in economic forecasters, who have an especially poor track record predicting recessions when the economy is growing. The Federal Reserve's meddling in the economy has hurt more than helped, with low interest rates encouraging corporations to take on unsustainable debt. Overseas, collapsing energy prices are crushing oil-producing countries, and since China's economy is dramatically slowing, "there is no longer a major growth engine in the world to bail everyone else out." Mark my words: "There will be a recession in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world in 2016."

Sometimes, the stories we tell ourselves about the economy are just as important as the data when it comes to moving markets, said Robert Shiller at The New York Times. Take the stock market's poor performance in the first weeks of the year. The calendar is just "an arbitrary social convention," but its symbolism is what gives the story heft. Likewise, exports to China account for just a sliver of 1 percent of U.S. GDP, so we are relatively insulated from a downturn there. "But once story-based thinking gets started, there is comparatively little public interest in such numbers." That's why "the stock slump could be self-fulfilling," said Robert Samuelson in The Washington Post. The steep and unexpected market plunge could be enough to make consumers and businesses alike less willing to spend money and take risks — "and cause the very slump they're trying to avoid."