The Economic Recovery Marched Slowly Forward in 2010

A roundup of major economic indicators shows broad improvement, but some aspects of business have healed more quickly than others.

Now that 2010 is nearly over, we can look back and decide just how the economic recovery fared after all. In general, the feeling was that it was going pretty well in the first half of the year, but hiccupped in the second half. But how big a step back did it take at that time? Was 2010 still an improvement over 2009? And if things didn't get worse, did the economy make progress at a more rapid rate in 2010 than it did in 2009?

The following chart helps to answer these questions (click to enlarge):

year in review 2010.png

This chart consists of 17 important economic indicators. There is a little overlap, but each provides a snapshot of some aspect of the U.S. economy. The data used spans from December 2007 through November 2010. Since December 2010's results aren't yet available, each 12-month period was considered from December of the previous year through November of the year listed, with a few exceptions as noted (GDP and exports).

Let's begin by looking at the "Direction" column. It is color-coded to make it easy to see what's going on here. All indicators but two improved. And those two were from the sector you might guess: housing. New home sales continued to decline in 2010 and foreclosure activity rose slightly. The silver lining, however, is that they worsened at a slower rate in 2010 than in 2009.

And that brings us to the "Direction of Change" column. The results in this column for those two indicators just mentioned are highlighted yellow. In this case, yellow means that the performance was bad, but not as bad as in 2009. None of the indicators were getting worse in 2010 more quickly than they were in 2009.

The green in the "Direction of Change" column is the easiest to interpret. This is purely good news. It indicates that either an indicator is improving quicker in 2010 than it was in 2009, or it has begun to improve this year after worsening last year. Of the 17 indicators, 10 changed direction in this very positive way.

Finally, the orange indicates that an indicator improved in 2010, but not as much as it did in 2009. This was the case for five indicators. In other words, the recovery in these segments of the economy has slowed, but hasn't reversed course.

So what does it all mean? The "Direction" column shows one thing pretty clearly: 2010 was a year of recovery. Virtually every major economic indicator improved, and the few that didn't are associated with housing. Even though the recovery may not have felt particularly strong, the economy definitely improved.

The "Direction of Change" column provides a little detail about the quality of the recovery. In fact, for most (green) indicators, the recovery either finally began or quickened. For a few (yellow), recovery was still elusive, but may be near. Yet a handful of indicators (orange) were recovering more slowly than they were in 2009.

Overall, this paints the picture of a year of relatively slow recovery. While several aspects of the economy began to heal or accelerate in 2010, others improved at a slower pace than in 2009. Things are getting better; they're just not improving as quickly as we might prefer.