In an environment dominated for months by mounting fears of the worst, pleasant surprises understandably create a fair amount of enthusiasm. That leaves economists with the thankless task of urging the enthusiasts not to get their hopes up too fast. The U.S. economy has shown encouraging signs in the past few months, including revival of the housing market, higher consumer sentiment, and, in the past few days, good news from the job market. But the country is not out of the woods yet.
- The jobless rate has fallen to its lowest level since 2008. A less heartening statistic, however, is that private-sector employment has yet to recover to where it stood in 2001. In this area, the U.S. economy has not performed any better than the French economy over the past eleven years!
- The housing market is unquestionably picking up, and all the evidence points to further improvement down the road. But the key drivers of demand have taken quite a bruising from the weaker economic environment of the past few years, and real estate has lost a good deal of its power to tow the rest of the economy in its wake.
- Corporate profits in the U.S. are at a historic high. However, decelerating productivity growth has led to a significant slowdown in the rise of earnings over the last several quarters. The upshot is that by any standard, developments on the investment front have been extremely disappointing.
- Lastly, while American pragmatism can be expected to bring about a postponement of the deadline for balancing the budget, thereby limiting the “fiscal cliff” risk to the economy, the fact remains that the country’s public finances are in alarming shape. The upcoming negotiations will necessarily turn the spotlight on one of the most disturbing issues facing the United States.