Is the U.S. Economy Now in Recovery?

On Friday the Bureau of Economic Analysis released its fourth quarter 2009 estimates of economic performance in the United States. The figures were surprisingly positive, with gross domestic product [glossary] growing at an annualized rate of 5.7 percent. According to the BEA, the increase was driven primarily by an expansion in business inventories. Consumer spending increased at a much slower pace (2.0 percent in the fourth quarter, down from 2.8 percent in the third quarter).

Analysts were surprised by the growth in GDP, which had been forecast to increase at a much slower rate. The Obama Administration expressed cautious optimism regarding the figure, with Christine Romer, chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors describing it as the “most positive news to date on the economy” and concluding that, “There will surely be bumps in the road ahead, and we will need to continue to take responsible actions to ensure that the recovery is as smooth and robust as possible. Nonetheless, today’s report is a welcome piece of encouraging news.”

Most observers now agree that we are unlikely to experience a “double-dip” recession. But the nature of the recovery still remains uncertain. Job figures released last week suggest that unemployment remains high and that employers remain hesitant to add jobs—thus Obama’s proposal to offer a $5,000 tax credit to employers who create new jobs. The concern—and one that seems entirely plausible given recent economic reports—is that the recovery of the U.S. economy will resemble the performance of the Japanese economy over the past decade, a “jobless recovery”  in which economic growth continues at a slow pace but unemployment remains high.

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