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When Will The Recovery Begin? Never.

July 15th, 2009 | Robert Reich

The so-called “green shoots” of recovery are turning brown in the scorching summer sun. In fact, the whole debate about when and how a recovery will begin is wrongly framed. On one side are the V-shapers who look back at prior recessions and conclude that the faster an economy drops, the faster it gets back on track. And because this economy fell off a cliff late last fall, they expect it to roar to life early next year. Hence the V shape.

Unfortunately, V-shapers are looking back at the wrong recessions. Focus on those that started with the bursting of a giant speculative bubble and you see slow recoveries. The reason is asset values at bottom are so low that investor confidence returns only gradually.

That’s where the more sober U-shapers come in. They predict a more gradual recovery, as investors slowly tiptoe back into the market.

Personally, I don’t buy into either camp. In a recession this deep, recovery doesn’t depend on investors. It depends on consumers who, after all, are 70 percent of the U.S. economy. And this time consumers got really whacked. Until consumers start spending again, you can forget any recovery, V or U shaped.

Problem is, consumers won’t start spending until they have money in their pockets and feel reasonably secure. But they don’t have the money, and it’s hard to see where it will come from. They can’t borrow. Their homes are worth a fraction of what they were before, so say goodbye to home equity loans and refinancings. One out of ten home owners is under water — owing more on their homes than their homes are worth. Unemployment continues to rise, and number of hours at work continues to drop. Those who can are saving. Those who can’t are hunkering down, as they must.

Eventually consumers will replace cars and appliances and other stuff that wears out, but a recovery can’t be built on replacements. Don’t expect businesses to invest much more without lots of consumers hankering after lots of new stuff. And don’t rely on exports. The global economy is contracting.

My prediction, then? Not a V, not a U. But an X. This economy can’t get back on track because the track we were on for years — featuring flat or declining median wages, mounting consumer debt, and widening insecurity, not to mention increasing carbon in the atmosphere — simply cannot be sustained.

The X marks a brand new track — a new economy. What will it look like? Nobody knows. All we know is the current economy can’t “recover” because it can’t go back to where it was before the crash. So instead of asking when the recovery will start, we should be asking when and how the new economy will begin. More on this to come.

Robert Reich: Robert B. Reich has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He also served on President-Elect Obama’s transition advisory board. He has written twelve books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet; and his most recent book, Supercapitalism. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His commentaries can be heard weekly on public radio’s “Marketplace.”

In 2003, Reich was awarded the prestigious Vaclav Havel Vision Foundation Prize, by the former Czech president, for his pioneering work in economic and social thought. In 2008, Time Magazine named him one of the ten most successful cabinet secretaries of the century. He received his B.A. from Dartmouth College, his M.A. from Oxford University where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and his J.D. from Yale Law School.

This article was originally posted on Robert Reich’s Blog on July 09, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission from the author.

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