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Job Worries Linger, But The Economy Is Looking Good

Assembly-line workers at the Chrysler plant in Sterling Heights, Mich. The economy is getting good marks in the latest data, but some worries about the job market continue.
Paul Sancya
Assembly-line workers at the Chrysler plant in Sterling Heights, Mich. The economy is getting good marks in the latest data, but some worries about the job market continue.

Five years after the Great Recession ended, where are we with this recovery?

On Wednesday, the Commerce Department and the Federal Reserve both answered by saying, in effect:

We're in a sweet spot — growing at a decent rate with good reason for optimism.

Or as the Fed blandly put it, "economic activity will expand at a moderate pace."

President Obama, speaking on the economy in Kansas City, Mo., was more effusive.

After a brutal recession, "we have fought back. We have got back off our feet, we have dusted ourselves off," Obama said. "Construction is up. Manufacturing is back. Our energy, our technology, our auto industries — they're all booming."

Most economists agree the signposts are pointing up. New numbers provide evidence that "the economy is healthy and will continue to grow at an above-average rate in the second half of this year and into 2015," IHS Global Insight chief U.S. economist Doug Handler said in his written assessment.

The upbeat day started with the Commerce Department saying GDP, or gross domestic product, rose at a robust 4 percent pace during April, May and June.

Economists were relieved to see the key measure of all goods and services rebound after a dismal winter. Back in January, February and March, when frigid temperatures and unusual snowstorms kept many shoppers at home, the economy shrank by 2.1 percent.

But then consumers came out of hibernation. Most economists had predicted a springtime bounce back of 3 percent, and were surprised to see the surge to 4 percent.

When the past 12 months are tallied together, growth evens out to about 2.4 percent over the period, a moderate pace.

Economists were still chewing over the GDP report when another important announcement came out at 2 p.m.

Federal Reserve policymakers ended their regularly scheduled meeting by saying "economic activity rebounded [and] labor market conditions improved, with the unemployment rate declining further."

But it wasn't all rosy. The Fed also noted that the job market remains slack. As a result, the central bank will continue to try to make it easier to borrow. The goal is to help businesses expand and hire more.

The extra stimulus is still needed because "a range of labor market indicators suggests that there remains significant underutilization of labor resources," the Fed said in its statement.

So the central bank will stick with its current program of buying bonds to help spur growth, but will continue to "taper" it down until an end date in October. For now, the Fed will cut its monthly bond purchases by an additional $10 billion, pushing the total down to $25 billion. Back in 2013, the amount was $85 billion a month.

Interpretation: The Fed is committed to taking its foot off the economy's gas pedal. But the move will continue to be very gradual, and it has no plans yet to pump the brakes by intentionally raising interest rates.

Some economists don't like that supergradual approach. One critic is Charles Plosser, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. As one of the Fed policymakers, he cast the sole vote in dissent because he disagrees with the Fed's plan to keep short-term interest rates near zero for "a considerable time." The fear is that such low rates might allow the economy to overheat and generate inflation.

But Fed Chair Janet Yellen remains more worried about jobs than inflation. Earlier this month, she expressed her concerns about the labor market and said "the recovery is not yet complete."

On Friday, everyone will get fresh ammo to continue this debate: At 8:30 a.m., the Labor Department is scheduled to release the July labor report. If the unemployment rate falls significantly from its current 6.1 percent level, it will strengthen the hand of critics who say it's time to push interest rates back up to higher, more normal levels.

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Marilyn Geewax is a contributor to NPR.