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Bleakest outlook takes prize for forecasting

For msnbc.com's panel of economic forecasters, the most pessimistic were the most accurate this year as the economy failed to meet even the relatively modest expectations of most experts.

David Rosenberg, the Canadian economist frequently known for his bearish views, takes the prize this year for the closest forecast among the 12 economists on our panel.

Gluskin Sheff

David Rosenberg says "retirement will become an increasingly elusive dream for many."

Rosenberg, chief economist for Gluskin Sheff & Associates, a wealth management firm, wins honors mainly because he correctly anticipated a year ago that 2011 would be a year of slow growth. Rosenberg projected U.S. economic growth of 2.3 percent for this year, compared with current projections that put GDP growth at just 1.7 percent for the year.

Rosenberg sees plenty of peril in the year ahead, especially with Europe in the midst of what he describes as a recession and China coming down from a heady period of rapid growth.

"2012 is probably going to be even more of a challenging year than 2011," he said.

While industrial companies have been driving the weak economic recovery for the past two years, they will be pressured this year by the strengthening dollar and the weakening of their primary markets in Asia and Europe, he said.

The expected expiration of Bush-era tax cuts at the end of 2012 also will cause anxiety and dampen consumer spending as Americans boost their personal savings in anticipation of lower take-home pay, he said.

While the labor market is "healing," most of the growth is in low-wage industries such as retail and hospitality, while high-paying industries such as manufacturing and finance are laying off workers, Rosenberg said. As for housing, sales activity has picked up but prices are still declining, which has a negative impact on consumer confidence and perceptions of wealth.

Rosenberg just barely beat UCLA's Ed Leamer, another frequently bearish forecaster. Our methodology looked at how accurately forecasters predicted overall economic growth, consumer inflation, unemployment and short-term interest rates.

Most panelists, including Rosenberg, were overly pessimistic about the employment market, which has been weak but not quite as bad as some had feared. Most economists predicted the unemployment rate would remain above 9 percent for the full year, but a sharp drop last month puts the current rate at 8.6 percent.

Most economists on our panel badly underestimated inflation, predicting consumer prices would rise less than 1 percent in 2011, compared with the actual 2.2 percent rate, excluding volatile food and energy prices.

Most economists predicted correctly that the Federal Reserve would leave interest rates at their current level of about zero percent, which the central bank has now virtually promised to leave in place through at least mid-2013.

With this ninth edition of our annual economic roundtable we are suspending the feature, although we continue to turn to our experts frequently for their regular analysis of the economy.

This year, for a change, we are turning to a different kind of expert and asking small business owners what they think about the prospects for the economy. We will be checking back with them often for their views on the economy.