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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

'Worst recovery' since Great Depression.

Inside the Disappointing Comeback

Two years ago, officials said, the worst recession since the Great Depression ended. The stumbling recovery has also proven to be the worst since the economic disaster of the 1930s.

Across a wide range of measures—employment growth, unemployment levels, bank lending, economic output, income growth, home prices and household expectations for financial well-being—the economy's improvement since the recession's end in June 2009 has been the worst, or one of the worst, since the government started tracking these trends after World War II.

Disappointing Data

The economy's improvement since the recession's June 2009 end has been the worst, or among the worst, recorded across a wide range of measures since the government started tracking these trends after World War II.

In some ways the recovery is much like the 1991 and 2001 post-recession periods: All three are marked by gradual output growth rather than sharp snap-backs typical of earlier recoveries. But this recovery may remain lackluster for years, many economists say, because of heavy household debt, a financial system still damaged by the mortgage crisis, fragile confidence and a government with few good options for supporting growth.
There are bright spots. Exports, particularly of manufactured and agricultural goods, are improving, in part because of booming developing-country economies and the weaker dollar. They are expected to pick up in the second half of the year as the temporary shock fades from Japan's earthquake and tsunami. In a hint of this, the Institute of Supply Management on Friday reported an uptick in manufacturing for June. Higher corporate profits, stock prices and business investment also are supporting the expansion.
Still, broader problems are holding the economy back.
Banks are less able or willing to lend than before the recession. Since the recovery started, banks have reduced money they make available through credit card lines from $3.04 trillion to $2.69 trillion and have reduced home equity credit lines from $1.33 trillion to $1.15 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Policy makers, meanwhile, are reluctant to do more to stimulate economic growth. The Federal Reserve has already pushed short-term interest rates to near zero. Two rounds of quantitative easing that including purchasing $1.425 trillion in mortgage bonds and $900 billion in Treasury debt helped to stabilize the economy but failed to spur a vigorous recovery.
Likewise, fiscal stimulus, either in the form of tax cuts favored by Republicans or spending increases favored by Democrats, looks unlikely given large federal deficits and the disappointing results of earlier efforts, including President Obama's $830 billion stimulus program of 2009.
The biggest problem may be household indebtedness. At the peak of the economic boom in the third quarter of 2007, U.S. households collectively had borrowed the equivalent of 127% of their annual incomes to fund purchases of homes, cars and other goods, up from an average of 84% in the 1990s. The money used to pay off that debt means less available for new spending. Households had worked their debt-to-income levels down to 112% by the first quarter, in part because banks have written off some debt as uncollectible.
Jurgen Schulz, owner of K-5, a San Diego area retailer that sells surfboards, skateboards and lifestyle apparel, sees more people living month-to-month. "Our sales trail way off the further it gets from pay period," he said. Mr. Schulz, in turn, didn't hire this year the six to eight seasonal workers his company usually brings on each summer.
Getting rid of debt could be a long and slow process.To get back to a 1990s debt-to-income ratio of 84%, households would either need to pay down another $3.3 trillion of debt, or see their incomes rise $3.9 trillion. That's equivalent to about nine years' worth of income growth in normal times, estimates Credit Suisse economist Dana Saporta.
Debt constraints are especially hard on consumers who before the crisis relied on credit cards or home equity lines to keep spending when they needed money. Now many of those lines have been limited or cut.
With less access to credit, many families are finding the only way to make ends meet is to cut spending.
"Every single month you're struggling, struggling, struggling," said Javier Toro, 49, a father of three. He makes $13 an hour as a customer service representative at a non-profit that administers a program offering free energy efficiency upgrades to homeowners. The program, funded by the 2009 stimulus law, ends in a few months as government funds dry up. He's paying about $100 a month to keep current on $3,000 in credit card debt, but making no headway paying down principal. To make ends meet, he's cut his cable and Internet service, and the fixed telephone line to his rented home.
He said, "You don't see when this is going to stop."
Debt and a dismal job market have hurt consumers' confidence, which further damps their willingness to spend. The University of Michigan finds that 24% of households expect to be better off financially within a year's time. That's the lowest this measure has been at this point in a recovery since World War II.
Austan Goolsbee, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, said job growth had been "significantly faster" than the recovery in the 2000s, though there was a long way to go. He added that recovering from a bubble-based expansion driven by consumer spending and housing toward more exports and investment was tough work. "We can't just go back to what we did before," he said.
Write to Jon Hilsenrath at jon.hilsenrath@wsj.com and Conor Dougherty atconor.dougherty@wsj.com

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