The economy Obama faces: Slow but gaining steadily

Associated Press Modified: November 7, 2012 at 12:15 pm •  Published: November 7, 2012
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Many U.S. employers are wary of expanding or hiring until that potential crisis is averted. That's why analysts have said resolving, or at least delaying, the fiscal cliff should be the most urgent economic priority for the White House.

In the longer run, analysts are more optimistic. Americans are feeling generally better about the economy. Measures of consumer confidence are at or near five-year highs.

And the main reason unemployment rose from 7.8 percent in September to 7.9 percent in October was that more people felt it was a good time to look for work. Most found jobs. Those who didn't were counted as unemployed. (The government counts people without jobs as unemployed only if they're looking for one.)

A brighter outlook among consumers is due, in part, to a steady increase in home prices after a painful six-year slump. Higher home prices can help create a "wealth effect," making homeowners feel richer and spurring more spending.

Banks are also more likely to lend freely when home prices rise because homes are more likely to hold their value.

Americans have also been shrinking debts and saving slightly more. Household debt as a percentage of after-tax income dropped from about 125 percent before the recession to 103 percent in the April-June quarter, according to the Federal Reserve's latest data. That ratio was roughly 90 percent in the 1990s.

But thanks to record-low interest rates, the cost of repaying those debts has dropped sharply. That, in turn, will free up more money for consumers to spend on cars, appliances and other goods.

Americans paid 10.7 percent of their after-tax income in interest on mortgages, credit cards and other consumer debt in this year's April-June quarter, according to the Fed. That was down from 14 percent at the end of 2007. And it's the lowest proportion since 1993.

"That's 3 percentage points of disposable income that I am no longer using to pay for stuff that I bought earlier but I can instead use to buy stuff now," noted Alan Levenson, chief economist at T. Rowe Price.

Economists note that economic recoveries after financial crises tend to be painfully slow. In part, that's because time is needed for consumers to reduce debts and for banks to recover and lend again.

Paul Ashworth, an economist at Capital Economics, noted that banks have boosted lending for the past 18 months — another sign that the passage of time is helping the economy rebound.

Obama "is going to have an easier time of it ... because we're further along the road to recovery after the financial crisis," Ashworth said.