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Will 2011 be a turning point for the economy?

With much of the public expecting so little from the economy, the mood could easily brighten if the job market were to rack up a few months of decent numbers.

December 26, 2010|Tom Petruno | Market Beat

The U.S. economy keeps climbing out of the deep hole left by the financial crash and the Great Recession that followed.

But the recovery's benefits have been dispensed unevenly, to say the least — which is why many Americans don't believe things have improved, and lack faith that 2011 will bring better times.

Those doubts, however, could have a silver lining: The bar is low for what might constitute good news that could feed on itself and give the economy significant momentum.

As 2010 ends, though, the sharp disparities of this recovery are what stand out.

Profits boomed at major corporations this year while countless small businesses struggled to stay afloat.

The financial health of most banks continues to improve, but at the expense of diligent savers who are earning virtually nothing on their money as short-term interest rates are held near zero.

Strong sales at luxury retailers like Tiffany & Co. and Coach Inc. have driven their stocks to record highs, even as the number of Americans on food stamps has reached a record 43 million.

Most distressing of all is the employment picture, of course. Despite five straight quarters of economic growth, the U.S. jobless rate, currently 9.8%, is down just slightly from its peak of 10.1% in October 2009.

The greatest challenge facing the economy in 2011 is clear: The job market must turn up, and meaningfully. If that doesn't happen, Americans' pessimism could become self-fulfilling.

The employment crisis is what drove Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke in 2010 to take on a role that would have been alien to his predecessors. In his public comments, the 57-year-old Fed chief — a PhD economist who grew up in small-town South Carolina — tried to show that he understood the pain of average families.

While partisanship deepened the divide in Congress for much of the year and the public's faith in President Obama's economic policies dwindled, Bernanke donned the mantle of responsibility for bolstering growth and spurring job creation.

"On its current economic trajectory, the U.S. runs the risk of seeing millions of workers unemployed or underemployed for many years," he said in a speech last month. "As a society, we should find that outcome unacceptable."

That was his primary defense of the Fed's controversial commitment Nov. 3 to purchase an additional $600 billion of U.S. Treasury securities through mid-2011. The Fed's goal in buying bonds from banks and private investors is to hold down longer-term interest rates and to funnel cash into the financial system — and, from there, into the real economy.

The central message of Bernanke's policies is that "the Fed wants growth, and they want a lot of it," said Joe Carson, an economist at money manager AllianceBernstein in New York.

But critics see the new bond-purchase program as potentially ruinous. They deride it as a money-printing campaign that risks a severe erosion of foreigners' confidence in the dollar and could fuel massive inflation down the road.

"It's just going to make a bubble that could burst later on," said Robert Auerbach, an economics professor at the University of Texas. He accuses the Fed of "malpractice."

Indeed, Bernanke has become the favorite target of the doomsday crowd, which taunts him relentlessly in Internet forums. That camp sees the combination of a ballooning federal budget deficit and the Fed's continued easy-money policies as assuring a new financial-system crash and the next Great Depression.

Even some of Bernanke's supporters simply doubt that the U.S. economy can make sustained progress, given still-depressed home prices, the reluctance of many banks to lend, and looming state and local government budget cuts.

And with many European countries in austerity mode because of their government-debt crises, and China and other Asian nations trying to slow growth to head off rising inflation, the global economy may be a head wind rather than a tail wind for the U.S. in 2011.

At the moment, however, even the Fed's detractors have been forced to admit that the recovery's pace has picked up in recent months, sweeping away the "double dip" recession fears that dominated last summer.

Retail sales this holiday season have substantially exceeded expectations. A monthly measure of manufacturing activity has signaled expansion of the sector for more than a year, and a comparable index for the far-larger services sector last month reached a six-month high.

And with Congress' extension of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts that were set to expire Dec. 31, the fear that consumer and business spending would hit a wall Jan. 1 has dissipated.

Real gross domestic product, the government's inflation-adjusted measure of the economy's total output, is expected to hit a new high either this quarter or next, more than recovering the last of what was lost in the recession.

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