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The Straits of America

NEW YORK – Macroeconomic indicators for the United States have been better than expected for the last few months. Job creation has picked up. Indicators for manufacturing and services have improved moderately. Even the housing industry has shown some signs of life. And consumption growth has been relatively resilient.

But, despite the favorable data, US economic growth will remain weak and below trend throughout 2012. Why is all the recent economic good news not to be believed?

First, US consumers remain income-challenged, wealth-challenged, and debt-constrained. Disposable income has been growing modestly – despite real-wage stagnation – mostly as a result of tax cuts and transfer payments. This is not sustainable: eventually, transfer payments will have to be reduced and taxes raised to reduce the fiscal deficit. Recent consumption data are already weakening relative to a couple of months ago, marked by holiday retail sales that were merely passable.

At the same time, US job growth is still too mediocre to make a dent in the overall unemployment rate and on labor income. The US needs to create at least 150,000 jobs per month on a consistent basis just to stabilize the unemployment rate. More than 40% of the unemployed are now long-term unemployed, which reduces their chances of ever regaining a decent job. Indeed, firms are still trying to find ways to slash labor costs.