4 Ways to Tell When a Real Recovery Has Begun

Beware false optimism.

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You could conclude just about anything from the daily cavalcade of economic statistics. Some suggest an imminent recovery. Others seem to foretell years of gloom. The bent of the expert interpreting the latest news—bull, bear, Obama-basher, Wall Street-hater—has as much to do with the outlook as the numbers themselves.

For the foreseeable future, there will be an aggressive hunt for two economic recoveries. One is the technical improvement in economic indicators that signals the economy is growing again. That's the one economists care about, which is why they scour the numbers on retail sales, business inventories, purchasing manager sentiment, subatomic inflation, the mood in Shanghai, and anything else that could help pinpoint the exact inflection point for a turnaround.

The other recovery, the one that most consumers are waiting for, is the one in which companies stop firing and start hiring, banks return to normal lending, and families stop worrying about jobs and income. And that turnaround—the consumer recovery—is likely to take much longer to materialize than the technical recovery.

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The danger of hyping a technical recovery is that it will arrive, with much fanfare—but fail to make ordinary consumers feel better off. Many economists, for example, are predicting that the recession will officially end by this summer or fall. The only problem is that when a technical recovery begins, a lot of companies fail to get the memo. They don't play along; they keep payrolls lean and maybe even continuing to lay off workers. So to guard against false optimism, here's how to tell when a real recovery is finally kicking into gear:

Unemployment improves. The single best indicator of the health of the economy is the job market. People who have lost their job, or worry that they might, obviously hoard their money and don't spend. That spells doom for an economy driven by consumer spending, as ours is. But once it's clear that jobs are coming back, consumers are more likely to relax and open their wallets.

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Projections about unemployment should make anybody queasy about the prospects for a recovery this year. The unemployment rate is currently 9.4 percent, a steep rise from one year ago, when it was an unremarkable 5.5 percent. And by most accounts, it's going to get worse. The International Monetary Fund expects the U.S. unemployment rate to be 10.1 percent in 2010. Economist Gary Shilling thinks unemployment will hit 11.4 percent and not peak until late next year.

It's hard to imagine a "recovery" in which jobs are even more scarce than they are now. When the unemployment rate finally starts to go in the other direction, we can start to think about putting the umbrellas away. Until then, no number of upticks or volume of optimistic talk will persuade Americans worried about their jobs that they should part with precious cash.

Housing prices stabilize. This has become a mantra by now: For the economy to get healthy, housing prices must stop falling. Problem is, the houses haven't been listening.

Housing matters for two reasons: It represents a big chunk of the economy, and it's the largest single repository of Americans' household wealth. With prices falling, buyers are scarce, since nobody wants to buy an expensive good today if it's going to be worth less tomorrow. With few buyers, all the other economic activity that swirls around real estate—remodeling, appliance and furniture sales, relocation services—is depressed. Homeowners are worse off, too, because the value of one of their vital assets is eroding.

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House prices have already fallen by 32 percent nationwide from the 2006 peak. And they have further to go. The latest readings on the S&P/Case-Schiller home price index, one prominent measure, showed another record decline in May. At some point, the declines will moderate and stop being records. But prices need to stop falling altogether, and probably rise, for a real recovery to happen. The Federal Reserve thinks home prices could stop falling in 2010, after a total decline of 41 to 48 percent. Other metrics, like housing starts and new-home sales, might point upward before then. Those will be signs of signs of a turnaround, not the real thing.

Household wealth increases. The housing bust and the volatile stock market have hammered the traditional investment tools that most Americans use, causing epic declines in the wealth of Americans. Since 2006, household net worth has declined by about $12 trillion, which equates to about $107,000 of lost wealth for each of America's 112 million households. That's partly because of the 40 percent plunge in the stock market since October 2007 and partly because of the steep declines in real estate values.

Americans simply own less, too. Home equity for the typical homeowner is just 41.1 percent, a record low. In 2002, it was 58.4 percent. Owning less means we owe more and will have to rebuild savings before we can spend like we used to. "This will be a drag on all discretionary purchases," says Dirk van Dijk, an analyst at Zacks Investment Research who thinks the tightfistedness will cut into the earnings of firms ranging from hotel chains to furniture makers to motorcycle manufacturers. Those are the same kinds of companies that need to start hiring again for a real recovery to develop. But they won't if sales stay sluggish. A turnaround will require sustained stock market gains and an end to the housing bust.

President Obama stops fudging on the economy. There's still a lot that could go wrong, and Obama knows it. Yet part of the president's job is to reassure skittish Americans, even as his economic lieutenants are fighting battles in the war room. That's why Obama has been making half-hearted pronouncements, like saying that the economy shows "some return to normalcy" and that "we expect there'll be some stabilization of the economy." Virtually all of Obama's remarks on the economy contain modifiers and future tense and a not-quite-there-yet quality, since he'll blow his own credibility if he tries to convince Americans that they're better off than they actually are. When Obama starts hedging less, be happy. That will signal better days. Finally.