WASHINGTON -- Something quite hopeful has been happening to the economy, but it's not getting the credit it deserves and little notice from the national news media in terms of its policy implications. The American economy appears to be showing signs of life in some of its key sectors amid widely shared economic forecasts that the recession will end sometime in the third or fourth quarter of this year and the economy will start growing again.
All recessions end, often long before the doom-and-gloomers say they will, but this one is showing modest signs of improvement despite the fact that only a relatively small portion of the Obama administration's massive $800 billion economic-stimulus fund has been spent.
The Commerce Department reported last week that factory orders rose in April by just 0.7 percent, the second gain in the past three months. OK, it was below the 0.9 percent forecasts, but significant nonetheless because it showed that manufacturing may be showing some life.
Elsewhere, construction spending rose a bit for a second straight month in April by 0.8 percent; existing-home sales were up three months in a row, including a sharp 6.7 percent rise in April; and banks were finding it easier to raise capital while deposits were up.
The automotive industry was in shambles, at least at General Motors and Chrysler, which were in bankruptcy proceedings. But the Ford Motor Co., which has not taken any of the government's bailout money, said last week it would boost production by 10 percent in the third quarter.
Consumer spending, which accounts for two-thirds of our economy, remains at best flat, but its contraction has slowed. It was down by 0.1 percent in April, less than the 0.2 percent forecast -- a hopeful sign.
The stock market, which bases its investment decisions on what the future holds, has been experiencing a welcome "bear rally" in the past month -- boosting worker 401(k)s and other pensions funds. The only question on Wall Street now is, when will this turn into a bull market?
All of this has happened when relatively little of the economic stimulus has gotten into the economy's bloodstream. It was fashioned to pump hundreds of billions into public-works projects, but the White House's Web site showed that the Transportation Department has spent only $69 million at last count as part of its pivotal infrastructure spending.
The big secret about the stimulus program is that the bulk of the $37 billion spent thus far has gone to pay for Medicaid bills, unemployment benefits and other safety-net programs.
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