The professionals are basically saying, don't worry, the recovery is still happening. They cite a big drop in government spending, along with bad winter weather and the huge rise in gasoline prices, as reasons behind the anemic first-quarter growth. Temporary bumps, in other words. Here's an economist from Moody's Analytics (via Real Time Economics):
High gasoline prices will remain a drag on consumer spending, but the labor market is strengthening; this is leading to improved confidence, and there is still a great deal of pent-up consumer demand following the recession. Business investment will bounce back, as financing costs remain very low and profits are very high. Homebuilding is near a bottom, and will soon start making consistently positive contributions to growth.
Other economists say much the same thing: That the January-March quarter will give way to stronger growth as the year progresses. That recoveries are always rocky, this one in particular. From the NYT:
"Most of the slowdown in the first quarter is viewed by the committee as being transitory," [said Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke], referring to the opinions of the Fed's Federal Open Market Committee, which sets interest rates. "That being said, we've taken our forecast down just a bit, taking into account factors like weaker construction and possibly just a bit less momentum in the economy."
But others view what's going on quite differently. Here's the Business Insider's Henry Blodget:
The perception is that everything's just fine: The continuation of a solid if unspectacular recovery that began in the summer of 2009. Stocks continue to rise. Corporate profits continue to boom. The unemployment rate continues to tick down. Wall Street continues to coin money. But the reality is that the recovery has never been strong and that many key metrics have recently turned south--despite the fact that the government still has its foot stomped on the stimulus gas.
My take is somewhat different. The problem isn't any one thing: Gas prices are high, but not unmanageable for most of us (and showing some signs of stability). Same with higher food costs. Unemployment is obviously still a problem, as is the sluggish real estate market, but the vast majority of Americans are not out of work and are not looking for a house. Yet these are the signposts that we're all familiar with - the ones that we all use, consciously or not, to base our view of the economy. And they are blasted into our heads, usually without much context. Here's a case where information overload is not necessarily a good things. This is what I said earlier this week on KPCC:
You know, hearing about some tech company getting venture capital money is fine, but it doesn't mean nearly as much as seeing the price of gasoline head higher every time you pull into the gas station - or being told that your house is worth $100,000 less than it was before the recession. Those are not necessarily the most important indicators, but they're the ones that people pay the most attention to - and they're not looking so good.