How Will We Know When the Economy Turns the Corner?

One question I am asked fairly often is how we will know when the economy turns the corner and we are on our way to a solid recovery. My answer is that we will be able to detect upticks in the data, though this may come with a bit of a lag, the important but harder task will be to understand why the data are showing improvement.

In order to be convinced that the economy is on solid footing and headed to better times, I will want to see several things. First, though not necessarily foremost, that banks are being recapitalized with private sector funds, and that this is happening without the aid of government guarantees or other such programs that encourage capital infusions (which is hard to determine while the government programs are in place). Second, I will want to see private sector non-residential investment improving, another sign that private sector funds are moving back into circulation. Presently, this hasn’t even started heading back upward, though there are signs the decline is slowing:

And there are other important factors too, e.g. consumption rebounding (though not to pre-crisis debt sustained levels), stabilization in housing markets, and so on. The point is that a self-sustaining recovery will require that the private sector be the primary driver of new economic activity, and that is what I will be looking for.

Once the economy does start to recover, the hard but critical part will be to determine how much of the recovery is self-sustaining (as it will be if private sector funds are driving the activity), and how much is being driven by government stimulus programs. If the recovery is self-sustaining, and we are fairly certain of that, then we can begin to carefully wind down the government programs supporting the economy. But if the recovery is mostly due to government stimulus and there is little sign that the financial and real sectors are attracting robust levels of private sector funds, then pulling back on government programs could be disastrous and plunge the economy right back into recession. In fact, in such a case, we may need to provide even more stimulus to fully bridge the gap until the private sector can support the economy on its own.

So, in answer to the question, we will have a pretty good idea when the economy turns the corner, but it will take awhile to determine why, and we cannot risk pulling back on government programs until we are sufficiently certain that the private sector can support normal economic activity without the government’s help.

About Mark Thoma 243 Articles

Affiliation: University of Oregon

Mark Thoma is a member of the Economics Department at the University of Oregon. He joined the UO faculty in 1987 and served as head of the Economics Department for five years. His research examines the effects that changes in monetary policy have on inflation, output, unemployment, interest rates and other macroeconomic variables with a focus on asymmetries in the response of these variables to policy changes, and on changes in the relationship between policy and the economy over time. He has also conducted research in other areas such as the relationship between the political party in power, and macroeconomic outcomes and using macroeconomic tools to predict transportation flows. He received his doctorate from Washington State University.

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