Recession Held Long Gone, but Few Celebrate


Pssssst. The recession is over. No kidding. Vanished. Kaput. Outtahere. For almost two years. You doubt it? Hey, the experts decided.

Just don't tell Issiac Allen, a Houston bus driver. "Are you kidding me?" he asks, throwing back his head in laughter. "How can that be?"

And don't tell Jin Kim, owner of a stall that sells gold jewelry and watches at a swap meet in South-Central Los Angeles. "People buy gifts for their friends, but they buy only cheap things," he laments.

And whatever you do, don't tell Fred Axelson, 49, a flower shop owner in downtown Atlanta who has seen tried-and-true customers recycling old decorations for this year's holidays. "I'm not ready to buy it," he says. "I'm being real cautious."

It may not mean much comfort--in fact, it may not mean much at all--but the recession officially ended in March, 1991, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private research group that serves as timekeeper of the U.S. economy's ups and downs.

The finding, announced Tuesday by the bureau's Business Cycle Dating Committee, confirms that an unusually flat recovery has been under way for 21 months. The eight-month slump began in July, 1990, just before the Persian Gulf crisis, and ended the following March, just after Operation Desert Storm.

But if you have trouble believing it, you're not alone. Even the scholars had some trouble fixing a precise date for the recession's end, because jobs and incomes haven't rallied in the normal manner after a slump.

"It was a weak recession and short one--contrary to the public's impression," said Victor Zarnowitz, a University of Chicago economist and member of the national bureau's recession panel. "But the public's perception is not really wrong," he continued. "Before the recession and after the recession, growth has been abnormally slow."

On the surface, there were signs of life Tuesday at the Galleria shopping mall in suburban White Plains, N.Y., where holiday shoppers sought out gifts beneath ornamental snow flakes and sparkling white lights.

Yet Manuel A. Silva, a dapper 22-year-old with slicked-back hair and a pencil moustache, expressed the sort of cynicism that is widespread. A chef by training, he lost his job two years ago and survives now as a salesman in a photography studio--wishing things would get better.

"I don't think the recession is over by a long shot," said Silva, who sold his car after losing his chef's job and now relies on his girlfriend for transportation. "There's plenty more that (Bill) Clinton has to do."

Joyeta Anderson, 40, a nearby shopper, said she's managed to hold on to her nursing job but has cut back spending due to worries about the economy. Now Anderson, who lives in the Bronx, said that her spirits are improving. "I think it's because of the change in government. I feel more hopeful."

Such upbeat sentiments are backed up by various signs of an emerging upturn, which could affect key policy decisions for President-elect Bill Clinton, such as whether to boost the economy with a spending stimulus next year and how fast to cut the budget deficit.

The Commerce Department onTuesday revised its estimate of growth in the July-September quarter to a 3.4% rate, down somewhat from an earlier estimate of 3.9% but substantially brisker than for most of the past two years.

In another upbeat indicator, the Commerce Department reported that businesses plan to boost their 1993 investments in plant and equipment by the strongest amount in four years.

Yet the economic picture is still mixed. Word also came Tuesday of a possible downturn overseas that could hurt U.S. exporters next year. The International Monetary Fund predicted a sluggish world economy next year, weighted down by growing problems in Europe and Japan.

At an even more fundamental level, the recovery has been much weaker than its recent counterparts, fueling continued worries over job security and skepticism that a bona fide upturn is under way. California and much of the Northeast have continued to lag, and the jobs picture remains dismal in many industries.

Thomas Patterson, a bicycle messenger in Houston, was among the many Americans on Tuesday who couldn't believe the slump was over. "Tell that to the people I deliver packages to," he said, strapping on his helmet.

Patterson, 29, offered an economic indicator of his own: The office buildings he zooms through, delivering packages to law firms and other companies, still have "a lot of empty floors and less people than before.

"I think things are just like they have been in the past year," he added. "Things are exactly the same for me."

The root of such feelings can be found more in today's peculiar recovery than the recession which is rapidly fading into the past.

For example, during the slump's eight-month life span, from mid-1990 to early 1991, the national economy contracted by 1.8%, not an unusually bad performance. It shrank a more punishing 2.6% in the recession of 1981-1982, and 2.5% in 1980.

Nor was the 1990-91 episode a major villain in terms of its length.

It is in the recovery where conditions have fizzled. Growth rates sprinted into the 5% and even 6% range during the initial months of prior upturns. It hasn't happened this time. Indeed, the 3.4% third quarter of 1992 has been seen as surprisingly powerful, coming after times in which many economists expected a relapse into recession.

"If the recession is deep, the recovery tends to be fast--and the reverse is also true," said Debashis Guha, a research economist at Columbia University's Center for International Business Cycle Research.

According to Zarnowitz, one of the economists who set the dates of the recent recession, some key indicators, such as industrial production, clearly hit bottom in early 1991. But contrary to typical recessions, other gauges of employment failed to recover for months.

Payroll employment, for example, didn't eke its way off the floor until January, 1992, and continued to suffer.

The seven-member committee, whose recession dates are accepted by government officials through tradition rather than any formal contract, came to agreement after an hourlong conference call earlier this week.

It might take a bit longer for the news to sink in for James Simington, 48, a custodian who was sweeping around the fringe of the Oriental rug in the lobby of an Atlanta office complex.

"I do feel a little bit better about it (the economy)," he said, leaning against the handle of his broom as he spoke. "But like I say, I haven't seen it in my finances yet."

At the California Mart, in the heart of Los Angeles' garment district, Kimberleigh Anthony answered the question, 'Is the recession over?' with a resounding "NOT!"

Contributing to this story were Times staff writers Linda Grant in New York and Mary Guthrie in Los Angeles and researchers Lianne Hart in Houston, Tracy Shryer in Chicago and Edith Stanley in Atlanta.

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