Has the US Recovery Begun?

CAMBRIDGE – Although the American economy is continuing to decline, it is no longer falling as fast as it was at the beginning of the year or in the weeks after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. In that sense, it is reasonable to say that the worst of the downturn is now probably behind us.

But my reading of the evidence does not agree with that of those who claim that the economy is actually improving, and that a sustained cyclical recovery is likely to begin within the next few months. Although the stimulus package of tax cuts and increased government outlays enacted earlier this year will give a temporary boost to growth, we are unlikely to see the start of a sustained upturn until next year at the earliest.

The optimists back their claims of an earlier recovery by pointing to a variety of statistics. They note that construction activity is rising, home prices are declining more slowly, disposable personal income increased in the first quarter, consumer spending is up, and the labor market is improving.

But a careful look at these data is less reassuring. In each case, the details do not support what the headline number appears to indicate.