As economic recoveries go, it’s been an odd one. Usually, signs of early growth show up in consumer spending, housing, and construction. This time, these have been the last areas to recover. Instead, the U.S. economy is getting most of its traction on the production side. Manufacturing and business investment have led the way, driving down the unemployment numbers. That improvement, in turn, looks like it may finally lead to an uptick in consumer spending. Although the measure rose just 0.1 percent in November, household borrowing jumped 9.9 percent. That suggests consumers are beginning to open their wallets after a couple years of paying down debt.
It all adds up to a promising start to 2012. Inventories are low, so businesses will likely spend part of the year restocking, fueling more action on the production side. Add in a nearly 10 percent rise in commercial and industrial lending from banks in the third quarter, plus recent signs of life in the housing and construction sectors, and the recovery looks to be on solid ground.
A note of caution: By many measures, the U.S. economy is back where it was a year ago, before the debt-ceiling debate and the euro crisis. Much of the recent good news could be seasonal, such as the 40,000 new courier and messenger jobs included in the December jobs report. Then there’s the ongoing drama in Europe. Even a mild recession there would dampen demand for U.S. goods. If a country or two exited the euro zone, global confidence could plummet. For now, though, there’s reason to hope. After all, shipments of champagne were up 31 percent through the third quarter.