Sometimes when it comes to economic numbers, optimism takes strange forms. The Labor Department said employers cut 345,000 jobs in May, which is only half the average monthly cuts over the past six months.
Still, the unemployment rate is rising faster than expected and is now at 9.4 percent, the highest in the U.S. in more than 25 years.
"It's hard to imagine [that] losing 345,000 jobs is a good news story, but in relative terms, it probably is," says Wharton professor Peter Capelli. "My guess would be that if the banks were reasonably healthy today, the economy would pick up within five to six months."
Capelli says whether we're in recovery all rests with the banks. This recession started there, and so it by definition must also end there. And, he says, knowing the cause of the recession is a good thing.
That's because when you can't pinpoint the cause of a downturn, it's harder to know when things are back to normal.
"I think in the typical recession and certainly in the last one, 2001, it took a long time for jobs to come back," says Capelli. "The story at the time was the employers weren't sure whether the recovery was real or not, so they didn't want to take on full-time workers."
Capelli acknowledges the banking crisis has landed other segments in the dumps — notably housing, construction and auto — but because Capelli thinks the lack of credit lies at the heart of those industries' problems, he says they stand to rebound quickly as soon as banks are healthy and offering credit again.
But not everyone is so sanguine about a rapid recovery.
Heidi Shierholz is an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, which studies issues affecting middle- and lower-income families.
Shierholz looks at the same numbers and sees a potentially protracted recovery time for the job market, and she says, "The threat of unemployment continuing to rise for another year — like through all of 2010 — is not insane."
The recession started with both a credit crisis and a housing crisis, says Shierholz, which is still far from resolution. And if the last two recessions are any model, employment won't improve for a year and half after this one officially ends.
Finally, Shierholz also says wages are now declining, which means those who do still have jobs have less money to spend. If consumers continue to spend less that could delay recovery even further.