The economic recovery that began in the middle of 2009 appears to have strengthened in the past few months, although the unemployment rate remains high. The initial phase of the recovery, which occurred in the second half of 2009 and in early 2010, was in large part attributable to the stabilization of the financial system, the effects of expansionary monetary and fiscal policies, and the strong boost to production from businesses rebuilding their depleted inventories. But economic growth slowed significantly last spring and concerns about the durability of the recovery intensified as the impetus from inventory building and fiscal stimulus diminished and as Europe's fiscal and banking problems roiled global financial markets.
More recently, however, we have seen increased evidence that a self-sustaining recovery in consumer and business spending may be taking hold. Notably, real consumer spending rose at an annual rate of more than 4 percent in the fourth quarter. Although strong sales of motor vehicles accounted for a significant portion of this pickup, the recent gains in consumer spending appear reasonably broad based. Business investment in new equipment and software increased robustly throughout much of last year, as firms replaced aging equipment and as the demand for their products and services expanded. Construction remains weak, though, reflecting an overhang of vacant and foreclosed homes and continued poor fundamentals for most types of commercial real estate. Overall, improving household and business confidence, accommodative monetary policy, and more-supportive financial conditions, including an apparently increasing willingness of banks to lend, seem likely to result in a more rapid pace of economic recovery in 2011 than we saw last year.
While indicators of spending and production have been encouraging on balance, the job market has improved only slowly. Following the loss of about 8-3/4 million jobs from 2008 through 2009, private-sector employment expanded by a little more than 1 million in 2010. However, this gain was barely sufficient to accommodate the inflow of recent graduates and other new entrants to the labor force and, therefore, not enough to significantly erode the wide margin of slack that remains in our labor market. Notable declines in the unemployment rate in December and January, together with improvement in indicators of job openings and firms' hiring plans, do provide some grounds for optimism on the employment front. Even so, with output growth likely to be moderate for a while and with employers reportedly still reluctant to add to their payrolls, it will be several years before the unemployment rate has returned to a more normal level. Until we see a sustained period of stronger job creation, we cannot consider the recovery to be truly established.
On the inflation front, we have recently seen increases in some highly visible prices, notably for gasoline. Indeed, prices of many industrial and agricultural commodities have risen lately, largely as a result of the very strong demand from fast-growing emerging market economies, coupled, in some cases, with constraints on supply. Nonetheless, overall inflation is still quite low and longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable. Over the 12 months ending in December, prices for all the goods and services consumed by households (as measured by the price index for personal consumption expenditures) increased by only 1.2 percent, down from 2.4 percent over the prior 12 months. To assess underlying trends in inflation, economists also follow several alternative measures of inflation; one such measure is so-called core inflation, which excludes the more volatile food and energy components and therefore can be a better predictor of where overall inflation is headed. Core inflation was only 0.7 percent in 2010, compared with around 2-1/2 percent in 2007, the year before the recession began. Wage growth has slowed as well, with average hourly earnings increasing only 1.7 percent last year. These downward trends in wage and price inflation are not surprising, given the substantial slack in the economy.
Every 4-6 weeks we get some statement from the Federal Reserve which provides a good comprehensive overview of the economic situation. This is incredibly important, as it allows us to continually reevaluate where the economy is at the macro scale, analyzing a large swath of important data, rather than concentrating on a few data points out of context.
Simply put, we're in much better shape now. The latest GDP report and latest Beige Book (see here, here, and here) all show a far better economic picture. Consumer spending has rebounded, manufacturing is very strong, services are improving and we're finally seeing a little inflation. The sum total of these factors is -- as Bernake notes -- "increased evidence that a self-sustaining recovery in consumer and business spending may be taking hold."
We have two problem areas: real estate and jobs. While commercial real estate is doing better residential real estate is still dogged by a massive inventory overhang which won't clear up anytime soon. The employment situation is also poor with the unemployment rate still high. The real issue is the last of meaningful job creation. As I noted this week, the real issue here isn't that we're not creating jobs; we're not creating enough of them. I'm still not sure what the issue is here, or whether it's a combination of these issues.
However, the bottom line is clear: we're doing pretty well right now.