Recession may be over, but recovery is painful

Survey of top economists by National Association of Business Economics finds more than 80% believe the worst is over, but recovery will be slow and painful.

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By Chris Isidore, CNNMoney.com senior writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- More than 80% of top economists believe that the recession that started almost two years ago is finally over. But most don't expect meaningful improvement in jobs, credit or housing for months to come.

That's according to a survey released Monday by the National Association for Business Economics (NABE). The group asked 43 top economists last month if they believe the battered U.S. economy has pulled out of the worst U.S. downturn since World War II. Those surveyed include economists from leading Wall Street firms and major corporations, as well as from highly respected universities and research firms.

Thirty-five respondents, or 81%, believe the recovery has begun. Only four, or 9%, believe the economy is still in a recession. The other four say they're uncertain.

Economists in the survey forecast that the U.S. economy grew at an annual rate of 3% in the three months that ended in September, though the official reading of gross domestic product won't be out for weeks.

And all of the economists surveyed expect the recovery to be slow and painful, leaving many people and businesses feeling the effects of the downturn for years to come.

The only organization that can officially declare the beginning or the end of a recession is the National Bureau of Economic Research. But that group doesn't make any sort of declaration until months after the fact, in order to take into account final readings of various economic measures such as employment, income and industrial production. For example, the NBER didn't declare that the recent recession had begun in December 2007 until a full year after the fact.

Lingering weakness

The NABE survey results echo comments made by many other prominent economists who have recently said they think the economy hit bottom at some point this summer.

Most notably, a recent statement from the Federal Reserve declared that economic readings "suggest economic activity has picked up following its severe downturn."

Still, the NABE survey found that economists are forecasting lingering weakness in the labor and housing markets, and that the tight credit markets will continue to be a drag on economic growth into next year.

Unemployment, which was at a 26-year high of 9.8% in September, is forecast to hit 10% during the last three months of this year, and stay there through the first quarter of 2010. By the end of next year, it's only expected to fall back down to 9.5%.

About 54% of those surveyed don't expect the economy to regain the jobs it lost during the recession until 2012, while another 38% expect that to take even longer. Just three of the economists that the NABE spoke to expect these jobs to come back in 2010 or 2011.

And many don't think the worst is over yet for housing either. About a third of economists believe that home prices won't bottom out until early 2010 or later, while a quarter of them believe the low will come in the fourth quarter.

Half of those surveyed expect the financial markets to continue to be a drag on the economy until next year, while 30% of them said that trend could continue into 2011.

The NABE last surveyed economists in May, and they were far less optimistic at the time. Only 18% of them thought the economy would recover in the last quarter of 2009, while 7% saw a turnaround sometime in 2010.  To top of page

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