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« Here's What's Bugging Me Right Now | Main | Economic Forecast: Sunny With a 85% Chance of Cowbell »
June 02, 2004

It's Not a "Recovery." It's a Boom.

MRC digests an article from CBS MarketWatch (registration required for MarketWatch) which is must-reading.

The article is digested in the second item, in the second half of that item (the first half is MRC's own evidence of media bias on the economy, which is also sort of interesting, but it's repetitive and it's stuff you already know).

Choicest bits:

To hear Big Media tell it, the U.S. economy is in a fragile state of 'recovery’ that threatens to be undermined at any moment, by rising interest rates, by soaring gas prices, by another terrorist attack.

In fact, the economy has been in a state of rip-roaring 'expansion’ -- the strongest in 20 years -- yet the media persists in painting a dreary picture.

...

"I don't know how much is agenda and how much is ignorance or just lemming-type journalism," said Comerica Bank Chief Economist David Littmann, who's tracked the economy for 40 years. "We're in a mini-boom, and to characterize it as a recovery is to diminish it."

This isn't nitpicking, mind you. The media is a powerful influence on how we view ourselves, and refusing to come around to substituting one word for another is depressing the national mood.

Think about it: An expansion implies strength and virility, while recovery suggests lingering weakness -- the stroke victim in therapy for paralysis, or the reformed alcoholic still at risk of falling off the wagon.

...

[T]ry these measures on for size:

* The nation's GDP grew 4.4 percent in the first quarter of 2004, capping its biggest 12-month gain since 1984. By most forecasts, GDP this year is expected to grow 4.7 percent -- the best calendar-year performance in two decades, surpassing even our longed-for 1999.

* The economy has created more than 1.1 million jobs since last August, with unemployment falling to 5.6 percent in April. That rate was lower, by a hair, in only two of 22 years from 1974-to-1995 -- 5.5 percent in 1988 and 5.3 percent in 1989.

[!!! Did anyone else know this?!!! The media keeps throwing the final unemployment reading under Clinton at us --3.8% -- but it turns out that was just a one-month figure; the average for the year was actually higher than Bush's is now, and indeed his averages for all the years of his his Presidency were higher than Bush's current unemployment figures.]

* Home ownership reached a record-high 68.6 percent in first quarter of this year -- up nearly 5 percentage points in the last decade

Yet the major media clings to the word "recovery" like a malpractice-fearing doctor too afraid to offer an optimistic prognosis to family members. For instance:

* A May 19 Wall Street Journal story on a speech by Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank President Anthony Santomero said he expects inflation to remain contained during "the U.S. economic recovery." (The Journal's words)

* A May 15 New York Times story on Money magazine naming a new editor said: "By this time in the recovery, most people can at least bear to open their 401(k) statements..."

* A May 18 Reuters story carried on NYT.com, the Times' Web site, said: "Mortgage rates dipped to near 40-year lows in the first few months of 2004, but have risen in recent weeks as signs of the U.S. economic recovery have solidified..." ...

When I alerted my boss to his use of the word "recovery" in a TV interview about rising oil prices, and its use by one of our columnists, he said: "You wouldn't call it an expansion if you were one of the people still unemployed."

Therein lies the root of the error.

Those who think we're still in a recovery apparently won't change their view until we return to the record-low 3.8 percent unemployment we enjoyed for a fleeting moment in 2000 during the most prosperous economy in history.

That's like not recognizing a bull market until the Nasdaq surpasses 5,000 again. I'd bet my retirement savings no one alive in the U.S. today will ever see sub-4 percent joblessness again, and here's why.

For decades, economists considered 4.5 percent "full employment," so the U.S. entered a labor-market utopia when we dropped far below that. But 3.8 percent didn't reflect real production needs. It reflected a gross overcapacity of human resources, as employers with delirious growth expectations rushed to net the little talent left in a labor pool then shallower than a sidewalk puddle after a light summer rain....


posted by Ace at 04:16 PM