Strictly Business: Recovery like a slow sunrise

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photoGordon Oliver, Columbian's business editor

Forecasting the weather used to be as much educated guesswork as science. Only one brave local weatherman, Jack Capell, correctly forecast one of the biggest storms in local history, the Columbus Day storm of 1962. On many days of those bygone years, the groundhog and the Farmer’s Almanac often were more reliable than the meteorologist.

These days, getting an accurate economic forecast is about as tough as figuring out the weekend weather in those days of old. And that makes it tough for those of us in the news business who try to make sense out of our world for our readers.

Each week, an industry of government and private analysts slices and dices bits of economic data in search for clues of a Columbus Day storm (i.e., the Great Recession) or of more worry-free times. Their prognostications during this period of so-called economic recovery are predicable only in their confusion: What seems a trend one day becomes an aberration the next.

The Columbian’s business section offers a blend of local and wire service stories that try to bring some sense to the direction of the global, national, regional and local economy. Some weeks, the mix of economic indicators present a picture that only a contortionist could understand.

A review of just five days of The Columbian’s business section, beginning May 1, tells the story. On that day, we offered a brief story that noted a slowdown in consumer spending in March. More worrisome, that story said, was that Americans are receiving little or no pay increases.

The next day’s report was more optimistic. U.S. manufacturing grew in April at the fastest pace in 10 months, the story said, “suggesting that the economy is healthier than recent data had indicated.” Another story reported big increases in Chrysler and Toyota sales, while sales by other auto makers “declined by less than analysts’ estimates.” So, what about those flat incomes and the slower pace of consumer spending?

Thursday brought a return to gloom. The number of workers added to private sector payrolls fell to the lowest level in seven months, “sparking trepidation for official government employment numbers coming Friday.”

Friday’s newspaper offered a deeply ambivalent article, in which the writer attempts to make sense out of the confusing indicators: “The U.S. economy’s recovery looks enduring. It’s just not very strong. Hiring, housing, consumer spending and manufacturing all appear to be improving, yet remain less than healthy,” Paul Wiseman of The Associated Press reported. Then, another tip to those upcoming employment numbers. “A clearer picture will emerge today,” he said, “when the government reveals how many jobs employers added in April.”

But the picture presented in a Saturday story wasn’t too clear, at least for those looking for calmer days ahead. “U.S. job growth slumped in April for a second straight month. It suggested an economy that is growing steadily but sluggishly, which could tighten the presidential race,” the writers said in a likely overreach.

We’re living through a time of uncertainty that’s confusing to analysts, journalists, consumers and ordinary workers. Recovery, it turns out, won’t be the calm that followed the long-ago Columbus Day storm, but more like the slow sunrise that fades away the night’s darkness.

Gordon Oliver is The Columbian’s business editor. 360-735-4699, http://twitter.com/col_goliver;http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/strictly-business or gordon.oliver@columbian.com