GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

August 16, 2012

US economic recovery is weakest since World War II

PAUL WISEMAN
AP Economics Writer

---- — WASHINGTON (AP) — The recession that ended three years ago this summer has been followed by the feeblest economic recovery since the Great Depression.

Since World War II, 10 U.S. recessions have been followed by a recovery that lasted at least three years. An Associated Press analysis shows that by just about any measure, the one that began in June 2009 is the weakest.

The ugliness goes well beyond unemployment, which at 8.3 percent is the highest this long after a recession ended.

Economic growth has never been weaker in a postwar recovery. Consumer spending has never been so slack. Only once has job growth been slower.

More than in any other post-World War II recovery, people who have jobs are hurting: Their paychecks have fallen behind inflation.

Many economists say the agonizing recovery from the Great Recession, which began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009, is the predictable consequence of a housing bust and a grave financial crisis.

Credit, the fuel that powers economies, evaporated after Lehman Brothers collapsed in September 2008. And a 30 percent drop in housing prices erased trillions in home equity and brought construction to a near-standstill.

So any recovery was destined to be a slog.

“A housing collapse is very different from a stock market bubble and crash,” says Nobel Prize-winning economist Peter Diamond of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It affects so many people. It only corrects very slowly.”

The U.S. economy has other problems, too. Europe’s troubles have undermined consumer and business confidence on both sides of the Atlantic. And the deeply divided U.S. political system has delivered growth-chilling uncertainty.

The AP compared nine economic recoveries since the end of World War II that lasted at least three years. A 10th recovery that ran from 1945 to 1948 was not included because the statistics from that period aren’t comprehensive, although the available data show that hiring was robust. There were two short-lived recoveries — 24 months and 12 months — after the recessions of 1957-58 and 1980.

Here is a closer look at how the comeback from the Great Recession stacks up with the others:

FEEBLE GROWTH: America’s gross domestic product — the broadest measure of economic output — grew 6.8 percent from the April-June quarter of 2009 through the same quarter this year, the slowest in the first three years of a postwar recovery. GDP grew an average of 15.5 percent in the first three years of the eight other comebacks analyzed.

EXHAUSTED CONSUMERS: Consumer spending has grown just 6.5 percent since the recession ended, feeblest in a postwar recovery. In the first three years of previous recoveries, spending rose an average of nearly 14 percent.

THE JOBS HOLE: The economy shed a staggering 8.8 million jobs during and shortly after the recession. Since employment hit bottom, the economy has created just over 4 million jobs.

SHRINKING PAYCHECKS: Usually, workers’ pay rises as the economy picks up momentum after a recession. Not this time. Employers don’t have to be generous in a weak job market because most workers don’t have anywhere to go.

As a result, pay raises haven’t kept up with even modest levels of inflation.

Earnings for production and nonsupervisory workers — a category that covers about 80 percent of the private, nonfarm workforce — have risen just over 6.2 percent since June 2009.

Falling wages haven’t hurt everyone. Lower labor costs helped push corporate profits to a record 10.6 percent of U.S. GDP in the first three months of 2012, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. And those surging profits helped lift the Dow Jones industrials 54 percent from the end of June 2009 to the end of last month. Only after the recessions of 1948-49 and 1953-54 did stocks rise more.

As weak as this recovery is, it’s nothing like what the U.S. went through in the 1930s. The period known as the Great Depression actually included two severe recessions separated by a recovery that lasted from March 1933 until May 1937.

It’s tough to compare the current recovery with the 1933-37 version. Economic figures comparable to today’s go back only to the late 1940s. But calculations by economist Robert Coen, professor emeritus at Northwestern University, suggest that things were far bleaker during the recovery three-quarters of a century ago: Coen found that unemployment remained well above 10 percent — and usually above 15 percent — throughout the 1930s.

Only the approach and outbreak of World War II — the ultimate government stimulus program — restored the economy and the job market to full health.