Recovery checklist -- six economic bright spots, two dim ones
Experts may differ on what to do about the economy, but they seem to unite around a central theme: Recovery will begin this year, it will be weak, and its path will be studded with pitfalls and danger.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
To reach this consensus, economists tote up plus and minus signs now emerging from the longest and deepest recession since World War II.
On the plus side:
* Two major industries - housing and autos - both sensitive to interest rates , show strong signs of recovery.
* Consumers have boosted their savings rate to more than 6 percent of income. Another 10 percent income tax cut this July will put more cash in people's pockets. Both developments indicate that Americans are poised to begin buying again, once their confidence returns.
* Inflation has been cut sharply over the past year, from the 8.9 percent average of 1982 to under 5 percent now. Interest rates have dropped 4 to 5 percentage points.
* Defense spending, climbing at better than a 7 percent annual rate, will boost some sectors of the economy.
* The government's index of leading indicators, designed to forecast what the economy is going to do, has risen in seven of the last eight months for which figures are available. The stock market, also a harbinger of what the future holds, is bullish.
* The Federal Reserve, by allowing more money to flow through the banking system and by lowering the discount rate, is trying to prod the economy toward recovery.
Among all these signs, the upturn in the housing market stands out. Home sales, housing starts, and permits for future construction all are rising, spurred by a 4.5 percent drop in the average mortgage rate over the past year.
This decline, says a report by the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company, results ''in a saving of almost $200 a month on a mortgage for a typically priced $70,000 home assuming a 25 percent down payment.''
Roughly one-third of American households, the report concludes, now can afford to buy a new home, compared with only 15 percent at the end of last year.
Housing is a bellwether industry so far as recovery is concerned, involving not only lumber, concrete, steel, glass, and other building materials, but hardware, appliances, and furnishings.
Also of note is the Fed's policy shift toward expansion. Says economist Alan Murray of Citibank: ''Monetary growth has paved and will, no doubt, continue to pave the way for recovery.''
Experts who hail these signs of recovery also warn of developments that could nip the process in the bud:
* Capital spending, unlike consumer spending, may drop below the low level of 1982. With so much slack capacity in the nation's manufacturing plants - now operating on average at less than 68 percent capacity - businessmen are holding back on new outlays.
* Sales of American goods to the rest of the world are down sharply, both because a strong dollar makes US products expensive and because customers overseas also are recession mired.
A slump in US sales overseas, economist C. Fred Bergsten says, ''has been the single most important cause of the current recession.'' One out of every six manufacturing jobs in the United States is tied to exports.
The impending recovery, in other words, will be shorn of two elements of strength normally apparent when the economy picks up - brisk capital spending on new plant and equipment and stronger sales in markets overseas.
This puts an additional burden on consumer spending as the engine of recovery. Here the performance of interest rates is crucial.
Rates, though they have fallen, are not yet low enough to spur major advances in the sales of autos and other durables. Huge federal deficits, meanwhile, exert upward pressure on interest rates.
From the pool of savings generated by individuals and corporations come the lendable funds which - when borrowed and put to use by the private sector - fuel economic growth.
Now, with deficits approaching 5 percent of the nation's total output of goods and services, the US Treasury will swallow a great deal of savings to finance government red ink.
This, experts agree, poses two threats. Competition between government and private sector for money could boost interest rates, choking off recovery.
Or, to prevent a credit crunch, the Fed might accommodate the Treasury's need by expanding the money supply. Inflation would result.