Is the Recession Ending? A Guide to Today's Economic Indicators

So are we on our way out of this thing or not? The world's economies are plunging, commercial real estate is on a cliff and California would register a 10.0 on the Richter scale if it could detect fiscal fissures. But now April's leading indicators are up and economists are once again optimistic. What the heck is going on?

In general there seems to be a vague but pervasive sense that we're hanging around the bottom, but we haven't reached that point of the trough were the news is actually positive as opposed to marginally less negative. For an itemized sense of things, here's a Good/Bad/Mixed breakdown, for your convenience and understanding. Quiz to follow.

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The Good1) Due to rising stock prices and consumer confidence the the index of U.S. leading economic indicators posted its biggest gain in four years.

2) With some prices dropping, cost of living has decreased by the most in a half-century, with most economists (who aren't too concerned about long-term deflation) hoping this boosts consumer confidence and kick-starts the economy.

3) Besides Bank of America, the stress tests seemed to indicate that most of the banks aren't in as bad shape as some economists predicted.

4) The Federal Reserve's "Beige Book," which surveys regional economies, found that many districts were beginning to stabilize.

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The Bad

1) World economies are plummeting at an alarming rate, with Mexico down 21.5%, Japan off 15%, and Germany 14%. What do they have in common? They're three of the US' most important trading partners, highlighting the global impact of slumped US consumer demand.

2) S&P delivered an embarrassing blow to the UK today by downgrading their sovereign debt rating to negative, a day after the IMF publicly castigated the country's handling of mountainous debt.

3) California is facing such a steep budget deficit ($21.3 billion) that some experts expect the state to re-write its Constitution for the first time in over a century.

4) The commercial real estate market is still the other shoe to drop and, with $814 billion in commercial real estate loans expected to mature by 2011, it could make a really awful sound. (Objection: A rare but interesting argument that there is no commercial real estate crisis can be found here)

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The Mixed

1) New jobless claims are leveling off, but they're still setting weekly records. The total number of people claiming unemployment insurance is now around 6.7 million.

2) Bernanke sees the housing market bottoming, and the recession ending sometime late this year, but he's still bearish on the job market.

Pop question: What does it all mean? You tell me. The leading indicators don't seem do provide much of a lead and the lagging indicator -- employment -- is turning around like a ship in a sea of molasses. But hey, at least we're not these guys.