The beginning of the end of the recession

AFTER three years of stagnant loan growth, banks are back in business. Clients who two years ago would not have qualified for a loan now find that they can. One customer who was working for only 35 hours a week two years ago is now working 45 to 50 hours. “That was his reason for coming in: he had steadier income.”

Across the country, bank lending, which shrank almost steadily from early 2009, is growing again (see chart), thanks to modest employment growth, stabilising home prices in many regions, and the Federal Reserve’s Herculean efforts to hold down interest rates.

This is helping. In the fourth quarter, America’s economy grew by 2.8% at an annual rate, the fastest in an otherwise dreary year. Much of that was from inventory restocking which will not be repeated. Still, consumer spending rose at a 2% annual rate and house building expanded by 11%, the most since 2004.

Households have as expected reduced their debts relative to their incomes; much of that has come by defaulting on their loans. More such defaults are probably in store. The question is, will consumers also divert more of their income from consumption? That would cause the saving rate to rise further.

A higher saving rate would be much less painful for the economy if it were achieved through increased income rather than lower spending. That could happen. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), in its economic outlook released on January 31st, reckoned that real disposable incomes would grow by 3% this year thanks both to faster wage growth and a big drop in inflation. That, it reckons, should support growth in consumption and overall GDP of 2%.

Plenty could go wrong with this scenario. Oil prices could spike again; banks, worried about Europe, could tighten their lending standards, as they already have done for some business loans.

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