Four Metrics for Gauging True Economic Recovery

Four Metrics for Gauging True Economic Recovery

[Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part series on The Next Economy. Part one is here: "Inside the 'Growthless, Jobless Recovery'"; part three will be published next week.]

Americans in 2011 may be opting for spaghetti at home and gym mats instead of hard-to-pronounce restaurants and pilates classes. Here are four metrics to watch, along with corresponding predictions for 2011. Warning, lots of numbers follow, and watching paint dry would not be an outlandish alternative.

Working it: In a room of ten folks of working age population, only six currently have a job or are actively searching for one. That figure, the "labor force participation rate," is at its lowest since the Olympics were in LA over a quarter-century ago. Long-term unemployment is now over six million, more than triple its previous high in the past 25 years. While unemployment makes headlines and bobs up and down, keep an eye on these two more significant figures. They are the function of structural characteristics, not a banking blow-up. Unfortunately, I think the labor force participation rate will continue to drop in 2010, and long-term unemployment will continue to rise.

Earning it: We are not making as much money as we used to. Personal income, the income received "by all persons from all sources" in the U.S. dropped by about $17 billion in September, compared to August. What is even more critical is the trend in personal income. For the past three years, personal income has grown by an average of a mere .2 percent per month, compared to .5 percent per month in 2007. Wages have been declining and will continue to drop for almost everyone, not just for newly minted sustainability MBAs or college graduates who were expecting more beyond the walls of the ivory tower.

Unfortunately, transfer payments, or payments from the government such as unemployment benefits, make up a substantial portion of our collective, national income: over 18 percent of personal income to be exact. That means the government is providing much more weight to the average wallet now than it did in 1990, when transfer payments were just 12 percent of personal income.

That figure will go down once a Republican-dominated Congress gets it in their crosshairs, and once we reach April, when the extension on unemployment benefits runs out. The Bush tax cuts, due to expire on December 31, 2010, may or may not be salvaged, but they certainly won't be increased. The bottom line is that our collective "inflow" column is shrinking.

Spending it: With fewer people working and working people earning less, we will spend less. The Consumer Confidence Index is hovering at the same level it was when this recession ended, and is 30 points lower than in 1994, when the Republicans last stormed the house on a wave of dissatisfaction with the direction of our country. Sales at Walmart stores open for more than a year, otherwise known as "same store sales," have declined six quarters in a row. That means they are faring worse than they did during the recession.

A recent Gallup poll indicates we are spending less now than in 2009. If unconvinced, ask the person who cuts your hair. He or she will most likely tell you their customers are now getting their hair cut less, and paying less for it when they do. Savings will increase slightly in 2011 and spending as a percent of personal income will decrease. No foodie trips to Tuscany or yoga retreats in India for Julia Roberts next year, unfortunately.

Sleeping on it: Rising house prices in the past decade meant Americans could spend without saving in parallel. That is old news. What is less often cited is that the assumption that house prices rise constantly and significantly is a recent construct. In reality, over the course of the 20th century, real house prices grew only 0.2 percent per year. That is slow and steady growth, not a PowerPoint version of the Matterhorn.

Yes, there has been a correction, housing prices have dropped, and the Case Shiller Index, which tracks value in residential real estate nationally, is off almost 30 percent from its high in 2006. But it still has another 35 percent to fall to reach 1998, pre tech-boom levels. Expect house prices to decline further in 2011, and this will reinforce the more saving/less spending outlined above.

Sitting on our houses, putting more in the piggy bank, spending less, and working harder or not all. It all sounds somewhat desperate. It does not have to. There are a few things we can do now to insure these current factors have a positive, lasting impact on the sustainability movement and the Next Economy.

The opinions in this series are the author's, and not of his employer.