Improved U.S. economy isn't fully returned yet

Perhaps the best way to think about the U.S. economy is this: After five painful years, it's nearly back to where it started when the recession began.
By CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABER Published: April 5, 2013

— From household wealth to spending at stores, many of the U.S. economy's vital signs have recovered from the damage done by the Great Recession.

Home foreclosures and layoffs have dropped to pre-recession levels. Economic output has rebounded. And the Dow Jones industrial average is in record territory.

So is the economy back to full health? Not quite.

Not with unemployment at 7.7 percent and with 3 million fewer jobs than when the recession began. And while the housing market is improving, that engine of economic growth and job creation still has far to go before it can be declared healthy.

Perhaps the best way to think about the U.S. economy is this: After five painful years, it's nearly back to where it started when the recession began.

The recession officially began in December 2007. It ended in June 2009. Here's a look at ways in which the economy has returned to pre-recession levels and ways it hasn't:

What's back

HOUSEHOLD WEALTH: Americans lost $16 trillion in wealth during the recession, mainly because home values and stock prices sank. Those losses have now been reversed. Household “net worth” reached $66.1 trillion in the final three months of 2012, according to the Federal Reserve.

RETAIL SALES: Just as household wealth has recovered, so has consumers' willingness to spend more to shop, eat out or go on vacation. That trend has spurred job growth at retailers and restaurants.

LAYOFFS: The job market remains weak by some measures. But consider this: If you have a job, you're less likely to lose it than at any other point in at least 12 years. That marks a sharp turnaround from the depths of the recession, when layoffs soared — from 1.8 million in December 2007 to 2.6 million in January 2009.

FORECLOSURES: Among the most visible signs of the recession were the “Foreclosure” and “Bank Owned” signs that dotted housing developments around the country. But home prices have been rising steadily. Foreclosures have sunk back to pre-recession levels.