US economic recovery: when, how strong, how lasting?

Americans will need a cool, far-sighted perspective to understand what is happening to their economy, given the mix of economic news on the horizon.

Government figures due out May 7 are likely to show that the US unemployment rate, now 9 percent, has risen to the highest level since the beginning of World War II.

Even a rise of 0.1 percent would push the jobless rate above any level reached since 1941, when unemployment averaged 9.9 percent for the year.

What is more, unemployment may continue to climb over the next few months, even if the current recession bottoms out and the economy begins to pick up.

''If industrial production levels out during the second quarter of the year, '' says Barry P. Bosworth, ''unemployment still may rise.'' Unemployment, in other words, is a lagging indicator of what is happening in the economy.

Employers tend to hold onto their workers as long as possible when recession comes. ''An employer carries people for a period of time,'' says Dr. Bosworth, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, ''a practice that used to be called labor hoarding.''

Conversely, having been forced finally to let workers go, employers tend to get as much mileage as possible out of reduced work forces before rehiring.

The economy may grow for as much as a quarter of a year, experts say, before the unemployment rate begins to shrink.

Americans, in other words, should not necessarily deduce from rising jobless figures that the economy is falling apart. Leading indicators--factors suggesting what the future is likely to bring--may tell a different story.

Such indicators include new orders for manufactured goods, orders for machine tools and equipment, building permits, length of the work week, and others.

So far the government's index of leading indicators has continued to sink, registering its 11th straight month of decline in March. There is, in short, little evidence to indicate that the recession has hit bottom, though many analysts--and certainly those within the Reagan administration--anticipate a leveling off in the April-June quarter.

''During the first quarter,'' says Murray Weidenbaum, chief economic adviser to President Reagan, ''there was a substantial inventory reduction'' by merchants trying to clear their shelves and warehouses of a backlog of unsold goods.

''If that process has been completed,'' says Mr. Weidenbaum,''the second quarter should be flat, maybe even slightly up, then stronger growth in the second half of the year.''

Beginning July 1, $45 billion will start to pour into the hands of consumers, through a 10 percent income tax reduction and, to 36 million elderly Americans, through higher social security benefits.

Much of that money will be spent, providing a spur to retail sales and to the economy as a whole--but not enough, many experts agree, to bring the economy ''roaring back,'' as Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan has claimed.

A growing economy will butt up against high interest rates, which are not expected to fall significantly until Congress and the White House fashion a 1983 budget indicative of lower deficits in the future.

This means, says Bosworth, that unemployment may remain high for some time to come. To cause the jobless rate to fall by 1 percent, he says, ''You look for an economic growth rate of 5 or 6 percent after a recession. You need something close to a 3 percent growth rate, just to hold your own on unemployment.''

This time around, many economists believe a 5 to 6 percent increase in the gross national product is unlikely because of high interest rates.

Bosworth's conclusion: The US jobless rate may not fall below 8.5 to 9 percent over the next 12 months.

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