Is The U.S. Economy Recovering Or Not?

GUESTS:
Phil Izzo, news editor for the Wall Street Journal
Robert Reich, professor of public policy at UC Berkeley
Lakshman Achuthan, managing director, Economic Cycle Research Institute

Fewer people filed for unemployment in July than analysts predicted, and home and car sales are up. Some economists consult indicators like these, and conclude the recession is drawing to a close. But other experts say the recovery hasn't yet begun.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Neal Conan is away this week.

There's some positive news on the economic front: Fewer people filed for unemployment in July than analysts predicted. More people are buying cars, spurred on by the government's Cash for Clunkers program, and home sales are rising. There's also, well, less positive news. In July, 360,000 homeowners defaulted on their mortgages, more people declared personal bankruptcy, and to the disappointment of retailers around the country, many Americans are still watching their wallets. So what to make of this economic split personality? Does the good news signal the recession's easing, or does the bad news mean recovery is still a ways off? We'll hear two view this hour.

Later, on the Opinion Page, an argument that we should stop spending so much money on surgery for grandma and spend it on younger generations instead. But first: Has the recovery begun? What are the economic indicators in your life that tell you things are getting better or not? Tell us your story. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's start by sorting through these various and sometimes confusing economic figures. Phil Izzo is news editor at the Wall Street Journal. He also writes for the Real Time economics blog. He's with us from our bureau in New York. Hi, Phil Izzo, how are you?

Mr. PHIL IZZO (News Editor, Wall Street Journal): Hi, Rebecca, how are you doing?

ROBERTS: So when you look at these different numbers, it's confusing about how to read them. It sort of depends on what your favorite statistic is of whether you see this as half full or half empty. So let's start with the unemployment numbers because that seems to be the number that a lot of people are using as their own personal benchmark. Fewer people filed claims than expected, but the number's still pretty high.

Mr. IZZO: Yeah, there's a lot of disparate news on the unemployment sector. We had the unemployment rate drop last month to 9.4 percent from 9.5. So some people saw that as good news. But at the same time, people fell off the rolls of unemployment, and we still lost about 250,000 jobs. So we're still losing jobs. The sector doesn't look great, but when you compare that to the amount of jobs that were lost earlier in the year and late last year, it looks a lot better. It looks like the pace of the climb, at least, is easing.

ROBERTS: Well, pace of climb easing is not the same thing as the number going down, right? People are still expecting we'll hit 10 percent?

Mr. IZZO: Yeah, they still expect that we're going to probably get to 10 percent maybe sometime at the end of this year or early next year, as fewer people lose their jobs, and the two different surveys catch up with one another.

ROBERTS: And there's also the idea that this doesn't - the numbers don't always include new people who have given up looking for work or the under-employed.

Mr. IZZO: Yeah, and that's a big reason why we had the 9.4-percent-rate drop, is that people dropped out of the workforce. Then when you talk about people who are under-employed, that rate is much higher. It's closer to 16.5 percent when you count people who don't have jobs and the people who are doing part-time - what we call part-time work for economic reasons, where they want a full-time job, but they're working at these - you know, at a job to pay the bills.

ROBERTS: So what does it mean when someone says when the recovery comes, it will be a jobless recovery?

Mr. IZZO: Yeah, that - when you get to a point of recovery, it's essentially where you have GDP growing again, where you have growth in the economy coming back, but you need growth to be at a certain level in order to start adding jobs to the economy. Because you've got to remember, we add - there's about 150,000 more people just by demographics getting into the job market every month. So you have to not only cover those people, but you have to start winning back the jobs that you already lost over the course of the recession. So what they're afraid of is that the GDP growth won't really be strong enough to bring that unemployment rate down to start really adding jobs. Now, there comes a point where we expect that to happen, but it's not quite yet. We're not quite there yet.

ROBERTS: Another area where the statistics seem to be in conflict is in housing. Home sales are rising, but so are foreclosures. What's going on?

Mr. IZZO: There's a lot of different things. I mean, you have to remember first of all that housing is very regional. The idea that there's a whole, national housing market is sort of a strange one. And even if you look at different areas of the country, we had a bubble, and everybody talks about the housing bubble, but if you look at someplace like Detroit, for example, there was no bubble there. Prices were essentially flat, and then they started falling even from the area that they were. You look at a place like Dallas or Cleveland, they also didn't have these huge run-up in prices. That was primarily concentrated in areas like Florida and Phoenix and California. They had the crazy run-up in prices, and they have the bigger correction that they have to get.

So there's some good news in those areas, which are the hardest-hit areas, that it seems like there is some indication that prices are leveling out, and before we can get to any point where we see a recovery, those prices have to sort of hit a bottom.

The other thing about foreclosures is it's been a little bit difficult to gauge because different states have different policies. There have been these moratoriums on foreclosures, where banks had to wait 90 days. They couldn't institute a foreclosure until they had given people 90 days to get their house in order, and some of that stuff is coming offline now.

ROBERTS: Let's hear what's going on with our callers. This is Stephanie in Newark. Stephanie, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

STEPHANIE (Caller): Hello, thank you. This is funny. We were just standing around yesterday talking about this. I started waiting tables three years ago. I'd had no experience doing it before. And every Friday and Saturday night, the lobby was full, for several hours, of people waiting 45 minutes to an hour to get a table. And it was wonderful, and now the lobby is empty on weekend nights.

ROBERTS: So that's your economic indicator, how full the lobby is?

STEPHANIE: Exactly. If I have to wade through a sea of people to get to the front door, that's a good thing. And when you're standing around with tables that are empty, you're not making any money. I'm working a few hours longer each night on what's considered a really good shift -closing the restaurant, staying until closing - and not really making what I made three years ago when I was out of there by nine o'clock at night. So at the end of the month, that accounts to probably $400 less a month, and I only do it part time.

ROBERTS: And Stephanie, since you've been there a couple of years, do you hear from people who used to be regulars saying, you know, we're cutting way back?

STEPHANIE: No, I haven't. I just have seen them not coming in.

ROBERTS: Right. Thank you so much for your call. It seems that this idea of sort of your own personal economic indicator, whether you read the statistics in the business section of the paper or not, you know, everyone sort of has his or her own gauge, whether it's when your son gets a job or whatever it is. Phil Izzo, what's your economic indicator?

Mr. IZZO: Well, I like to look at consumption to see, you know, if people are, you know, buying more things. I mean, that's the thing we do the most. We look and see how crowded the stores are. How crowded are the roads on the way out, to give you an idea of, you know, if people are actually out there spending. But that's a hard thing when you're looking at big economic numbers, is to take that anecdotal evidence and make sense of it when you start seeing, you know, other numbers increase, and you're just not seeing it out there in the real world.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Mike(ph) in Oklahoma City. Mike, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MIKE (Caller): Hi. We got some good news out of this. Today, my wife started a new job. She had previously been unemployed for a year and a half. She had been reduced in force. Her entire department at her previous job was RIF'd, and so, you know, for us things are starting to look up.

ROBERTS: What does she do?

MIKE: She's in human resources, and I am an IT technician.

ROBERTS: Congratulations on her getting a new job. Are there things that you all have been holding off on while she was unemployed. Do you think this might actually lead to different consumer habits for you?

MIKE: Well, we had changed our cell phone plan to something a little less generous, cut back on the cable TV and, you know, smaller parties and smaller present loads, basically, for the kids at Christmas and birthdays and things of that nature. And some of that will come back, but I kind of like not having the generous cell phone plan, where anybody can call me any time they want. Now I can say, well, don't call me. I can't take the call. So to some extent, it's - some of these things are going to come back, and some of them aren't.

ROBERTS: Mike, thanks for your call. Phil Izzo, this is not an uncommon story, that maybe some of the belt-tightening measures consumers are taking might last. You know, they won't necessarily go back to the same levels of debt, the same levels of spending before the crash.

Mr. IZZO: Yeah, it's a really big concern. It's a big question mark right now: where we're going to get to as far as consumer spending is concerned. And what we've been hearing is that people have - were over-leveraged for too long. They borrowed too much. They didn't have enough saving, and what we're going to have to get back to is a level of savings-rate that's more in tune with the way it's been for the last couple of decades. And you know, now that there's less easy credit out there, how long is it going to take for people to get back to the point where they're saving more, and they're not spending quite as much.

The good news is that we need to get to that point. We need to have that equilibrium where people are saving the right amount so they're not putting themselves in danger, but the bad news for - it's what we call the paradox of thrift. If nobody's spending, nobody's buying, and how are you going to pay your employees?

ROBERTS: Well, it also brings up the question of what was the outlier, the heavy spending before the recession or the going back to a higher level of savings as a correction? Which was actually the anomaly that needed to be corrected?

Mr. IZZO: Yeah, well, that's an open question, too. I mean, well, we definitely saw too much credit. I mean, the credit was very easy for very long, and there - you know, it wasn't just the banks, too. There was a whole shadow-banking system that people could get credit from at the same time. So I mean, there's no doubt that there was too much credit, which was unsustainable. And the question is, you know, what is that process of correction going to look like? How much more saving do we have to do? How much less spending can the consumer do to keep the economy sort of at an even keel?

ROBERTS: We have an email from a listener in Jessup, Maryland, who says: I'd like to know, where are the jobs? I'm an unemployed project manager professional. I was laid off in April this year. Within the national statistics, are there regions that are doing better or worse?

Mr. IZZO: Well, the health-care industry generally does a little bit better - the education, the government sector, places where it's, you know, where there is some money - within the health-care sector because of demographic shifts. I mean, nurses apparently are still always in high demand. There's never enough nurses to fill all the spots that are out there. And at the same time, the government - the federal government has been the one place where spending has kept up. And if you - you know, they're doing much more hiring than you might see in the private sector.

ROBERTS: Phil Izzo, thank you so much.

Mr. IZZO: Sure. Thanks for having me.

ROBERTS: Phil Izzo covers economics at the Wall Street Journal and writes their Real Time economics blog. He joined us from our bureau in New York.

These are the facts that we're dealing with in this economy, but what do they tell us about whether or not things are getting any better? Two economists weigh in next, and your calls. What's your economic indicator? Stephanie said hers was the size of the crowd in the lobby at her restaurant. What are you using to decide whether your economy is getting better? 800-989-8255, or drop us an email. The address is talk@npr.org. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Last week, the Wall Street Journal surveyed dozens of economists, and a majority believe the recession is over. They point to a better-than-expected unemployment report for July and a rise in house and car sales. But not all economists are ready to jump on that bandwagon, and what about you? What are the economic indicators in your life that tell you things are getting better or not? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, npr.org, and then click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's hear from Rick(ph) in Gay Mills(ph). Welcome to the program.

RICK (Caller): Hi, my name is Rick. My indicator is the number of vehicles for sale along the highway that I drive from Gays Mills to Madison. And that spiked up about two years ago, and it hasn't come down - not only vehicles but wave runners and boats and snowmobiles and ATVs. And the quality of the things offered for sale has actually gone up in the last six months, but the number has not gone down.

ROBERTS: So these are just people who put their car out because it's a well-traveled highway and put up a big for-sale sign?

RICK: Exactly - their cars, their boats on Highway 14, which is a very well-traveled highway in that part of Wisconsin. And you count the numbers of items for sale, and it hasn't gone down any.

ROBERTS: Thanks for calling in. We appreciate it.

RICK: You're welcome, bye-bye.

ROBERTS: Again, your economic indicators, whether they are the traditional economic indicators or a personal one in your neck of the woods, 800-989-8255 or send us email, talk@npr.org.

We're joined now by Robert Reich. He served as secretary of labor for President Bill Clinton. He's a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He joins us from a studio on campus there. Welcome to the program.

Mr. ROBERT REICH (Former Secretary, Department of Labor): Hi, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: We are also joined by Lakshman Achuthan. He's managing director of the Economic Cycle Research Institute. He's with us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you.

Mr. LAKSHMAN ACHUTHAN (Managing Director, Economic Cycle Research Institute): Good afternoon.

ROBERTS: Let me begin with you, Robert Reich. You're looking at all the data and figures we've been talking about, and to you, none of this points to a recovery. Why not?

Mr. REICH: Well, not so much a recovery, Rebecca. The good news, obviously, is that things are getting worse more slowly. That may not seem like good news, but that is good news - 247,000 jobs lost last month is certainly better than the 400,000 or so we've been losing. But the fact of the matter is that I don't see enough consumer demand out there to really turn things around, at least for a very long time. Because consumers, after all, not only do they have to worry about jobs - one out of seven is under-employed, they're unemployed or under-employed in terms of the amount of work they are actually doing versus what they'd like to do - but also banks are not lending. Consumers have a huge debt load that they have to get out from under, an unusually huge debt load, including one-third of homeowners being underwater. I mean, they owe more on their homes than the homes are worth. And you have baby boomers, many who have not saved for retirement, who have got to start saving quite seriously.

So put this all together, and there's just not enough consumer demand to actually sell all the things that people and businesses could sell if the economy were nearly back to normal. I don't see where the demand is going to come from, quite frankly.

ROBERTS: Well, what about government efforts to boost that, like the Cash for Clunkers program?

Mr. REICH: Yeah, Cash for Clunkers did work and has worked, and the stimulus has worked, at least the tax-cut part of the stimulus and also help for states' unemployment insurance and even the infrastructure spending is starting to get out there, but that is not a permanent solution. After all, the government can't continue to put out there a lot of money without risking inflation. The debt load is already huge for the federal government. At some point, foreigners are going to stop lending us. So again, where is the permanent demand coming from? I just don't see that.

ROBERTS: Lakshman Achuthan, you look at these same indicators, you come to a different conclusion. Your company issued a report last week saying: The early stage of this economic recovery will be stronger than any since the early 1980s.

Mr. ACHUTHAN: Right, and I'd like to point out what we're talking about is a cyclical forecast. Where is the business cycle headed? The key thing is: Will it be changing direction anytime soon? And then is there some new turning point out on the horizon? And admittedly, we can't see that far. So certainly, I can't talk about any kind of permanent recovery, but I can talk about a recovery that's going to last longer than you think - more than a few quarters, probably up to a year. And the indicators that we put out at the end of last week, specifically the Weekly Leading Index, has a very long real-time history. It's not fitted, as many Wall Street models are or Washington models, and this is a very objective set of forward-looking indicators.

Remember, all economic data is not created equal when it comes to looking forward. We can talk about personal indicators and other types of indicators of where you think the economy is, but there's only a few that actually lead turning points in the business cycle. And these are - and they're all fallible, individually, by the way. But taken together in a leading index, they are much less fallible. And the sheer strength of this upturn tells us that the recession, that admittedly is the worst recession we've seen since the Great Depression, is drawing to a close even though there's a lot of problems that have not been resolved.

And so we will have a recovery in GDP. We will have a recovery in employment, specifically and focused on people who don't work in manufacturing sector. You'll see a recovery even in sales, even though the consumer remains under a great deal of pressure. All of these things you will see in the rear-view mirror at the end of the year as having started to take place sometime this summer.

ROBERTS: Well, what about this point that if consumers aren't spending enough, and exports are dropping and business investment is still low, that there's just not enough money in the economy to spur a bull market?

Mr. ACHUTHAN: Sure, well, spending - let's - sales, spending, manufacturing and trade sales is a very broad number. Retail sales is a more narrow number. These are key coincident indicators of the business cycle. You cannot have a recession end unless these numbers begin to recover, okay?

You cannot also, just to be clear, have a recession end unless we start to add jobs, and I'm not talking simply, in other words, about GDP going positive. But all of those measures are coincident measures of the business cycle. They do not tell you anything about tomorrow. And I think what happens, and I know what happens, is that most forecasters build models, where they extrapolate recent trends, and clearly, the recent trend has been pretty much down. So if you're extending that into the future, you're not going to see an upturn until after it's happened.

ROBERTS: Robert Reich, do you disagree?

Mr. REICH: Well, I wish I could agree. I'm sitting here thinking boy, it sounds great.

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Mr. ACHUTHAN: It does.

Mr. REICH: But here's the problem. I mean, this is not a typical downturn. You know, most of the recessions we remember in recent years -over the last, you know, 30 years - most of those have been brought on by the Federal Reserve board overshooting - just slowing the economy to avoid inflation, like the great early '80s recession brought on by Paul Volcker's Federal Reserve board. When double-digit inflation threatened, he broke the back of double-digit inflation by raising interest rates so high that everybody stopped buying. But you see, at the end of that recession, there was still a lot of pent-up consumer demand.

This time, though, we've had a gigantic asset bubble. Housing prices are now one-third lower across the nation on average. Now, Phil Izzo talking before was absolutely right. Averages, you know, are a little bit not accurate exactly because housing varies across the country.

But basically, we can't get back on the old track we were on, given that that old track got us into terrible trouble. That old track involved huge indebtedness - median wages that were stuck. In fact, between 2001 and 2007, the median wage actually dropped, adjusted for inflation. There's no way to go back to where we were. That was a false recovery. And so to say that we're going to recover and borrow again and spend more and have a lot more jobs - I wish I could believe it, but I just don't see us going back to the kind of economy we had then.

ROBERTS: We're hearing some economic indicators from around the country from our listeners. Troy(ph) in Fullerton, California, says his is getting a job in the region he wants. He's employed in the L.A. area, but he would much rather be employed as a satellite engineer in the Bay area. When those jobs open up again, I'll feel the economy is in better shape.

Coralee(ph) in Denver says: I live in a district with a lot of small art galleries. And in the last nine months, a few have shut down, as well as a restaurant a few blocks from my house, but some of the spaces that have been recently been vacant, there's a new independent restaurant opening up. There is hope that things are getting better, at least in the Denver area.

And Vicki(ph) says her economic indicator is the number of catalogs she gets in the mail. She says she's an Internet and catalog shopper. Over the years, she's gotten volumes of them, but with a couple of exceptions, she hardly ever gets them anymore. We'll see what the holiday season brings.

Which brings up this idea of sort of what time frames are we looking at? I mean, the holiday season is sort of medium-term, not, you know, next week, but it seems that even the most bullish recovery conversations are talking mid-2010, right? Lakshman Achuthan?

Mr. ACHUTHAN: Well, yeah. No, I think we would start to see coincident measures like GDP, jobs growth - away from the manufacturing sector, I'd like to clarify - retail sales and income numbers improve before the middle of 2010.

Very clearly, those things need to come to pass if the recession is coming to an end. And I believe, according - you know, I believe these leading indicators which predate, you know, they go back much further than 30 years. They have navigated successfully the jungle variety recessions that we had in this country before the Great Depression.

So they, I think, remain very relevant in the current economy. And I do not want to sound like I'm blind to what's Secretary Reich is saying. I fully agree with many of the tone of it. There is a lot of pain out there. We are near the bottom of the business cycle, and so necessarily, jobs and sales and other co-incident figures of activity are going to be extremely weak.

A lot of people out there are hurting because this was the worst recession since the Great Depression. Millions of people, primarily in the manufacturing sector, will not get their jobs back. More millions of people have mortgages that are under water. I agree and see all of that. Those consumers are not in a position to give the economy a boost.

But the reality is, that there are many more millions who've been able to hang onto their jobs. And it looks likely that they're not going to be fired. In fact, the trend is going the other way.

Homes have never been this affordable for most of our lifetimes. Cars are being sold. And I think, probably, there was pent-up demand for cars that the Cash for Clunkers took even further advantage of. So, you see demand not only from the future, that the Cash for Clunkers is bringing forward, but also from past that it's un-sticking. Other discretionary items, appliances and other things are starting to firm up.

And then, finally - and here's something, whether we like it or not - this is the way of the land. The top 10 percent of Americans, in terms of wealth, account for half of consumer spending. Now, like everyone else, the very wealthy were shell shocked last fall and through the winter. But they are emerging from their bunkers and taking a look around. And while many have lost money, they still have enough left in terms of wealth and earnings power to essentially resume spending without radical changes to their lifestyles. And they're staring at very low prices.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's take call from David in Somerville, Massachusetts. David, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

DAVID (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me.

ROBERTS: Sure.

DAVID: So, I want to get back to what both of your guests said about the regional nature of the housing market. And I just heard that, that phrase - housing is more affordable than ever. Not where I live. I live in Somerville, Massachusetts. Somerville/Cambridge area, for those who aren't familiar, is just outside of Boston. And we're in the old economy. The housing in Buffalo is alive and well and it's really frustrating.

My wife and I are both professionals. We're looking to buy our first home, and it's an impossibility. I mean, places with very little room are going for 600k, sometimes 700k. And we're talking condos here, let alone houses.

And they are off the market because someone snapped it up, you know, sometimes within a week or less. And we're shaking our heads thinking, you know, what are we doing wrong? It's at the twilight zone, and we read news the market is bad.

ROBERTS: David, how are you feeling about your ability to get the loan you want?

DAVID: That, oddly enough, is really a good credit. We're fortunate. And so - but the loan isn't the problem. The problem is, even with the load debt, the housing is just - not only outside our means, but we're looking around us and within someone's means, because someone keeps buying all these houses. It's kind of perplexing when I read the headlines and say, you know, the economy is still in the tank.

ROBERTS: David, thanks for your call. Robert Reich, what about housing prices? What - how is that going to collect itself? Or will it ever get to a point more or less before the recession?

Prof. REICH: Well, eventually… Now, there are places around the country like Cambridge, Massachusetts and Somerville - both places I know very well - places like that are desirable locations, partly because they're educational communities, universities - universities generate a lot of jobs. And there are also hubs or nearby hubs of major health care facilities, they also generate a lot of jobs. So demand is pretty healthy in these places.

But if you look around elsewhere, you find that these are not quite as buoyant. Now, David, I think you will find something and you may have to settle - if you do want to live in Cambridge or Somerville, you may have to settle for something a little bit smaller than you want.

You know, you may have to do what a lot of people had to do in 2006, 2007. If they are a good credit risks, they will get something. But most of the problem around the country is that people are not particularly credit risks right now. Their housing is really a huge problem for them because they owe more on their homes than the homes are worth. And that's true of one-third of homeowners right now - with mortgages. And that's the big issue. And foreclosure continues to be, probably the biggest danger for many people, besides losing their jobs.

And with the kind of fear, again, going back to the theme, Rebecca, we're just not going to see a lot of spending. People don't want to spend because they are afraid - with regard to jobs, loss of homes, loss of health care.

ROBERTS: Robert Reich, he teaches public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, was a Labor secretary in the Clinton Administration. Thank you so much for joining us.

Prof. REICH: Well, thank you, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: And Robert Reich's most recent book is "Supercapitalism." He joined us from the studios on the campus in Berkeley, California. And from our bureau in New York, Lakshman Achuthan, managing director of the Economic Cycle Research Institute, thank you so much.

Mr. ACHUTHAN: Thank you.

ROBERTS: A couple of quick economic indicators here from some of our listeners, Dave Murray in Oregon says: the increase size in content in advertising of our daily newspaper, that might be the only good news newspaper story in this particular recession. And Janna(ph) says, at a car rental agency, her economic indicator is how busy they are at the car rental. June was slow. July, they did 97 percent of the business they did last year.

Coming up, the health care generation gap. Why do we spend so much money on dying patients? Stay with us, the Opinion Page is coming up next.

I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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