Voters contemplate an indolent economy

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WASHINGTON — Nearing Election Day, the economy offers mixed signals to voters.

A flurry of positive data on jobs, growth and consumer confidence suggest that the economy is slowly, steadily improving. Yet few economists think that the sluggish upward movement will improve much next year, regardless of who wins the presidential election.

The slow crawl back from the Great Recession has made it difficult for President Barack Obama to seek re-election. “It could have been worse” is hardly the sexiest of campaign slogans. It’s left fertile ground for Republican challenger Mitt Romney to argue that the economy will improve under his stewardship. Think of the economy as a bowl of soup: It’s not as hot as you’d like it, but it’s not stone cold, either.

The Federal Reserve and mainstream economists forecast another sluggish year in 2013, regardless of who wins the presidency. The U.S. economy continues to face head winds that include the European debt crisis, a global slowdown, flat business investment and consumers continuing to pay down debts rather than spend at the mall.

“I don’t see that much out there to grow beyond 2 percent to 3 percent,” said Alan Levenson, the chief economist for investment firm T. Rowe Price in Baltimore.

That’s not to say he doesn’t see bright spots. One is housing, which added to economic growth in the latest quarter after dragging against it for the past four years. Levenson expects housing starts to grow by a modest 250,000 in 2013, bringing national housing starts to about 1 million next year.

The U.S. economy grew at an annual rate of 2 percent from July through September. Under normal times, that’s a decent growth rate for a mature economy such as the United States’. But these aren’t normal times, and the economy has grown in fits and spurts since the Great Recession ended in June 2009.

“I’d call it middling growth. If we were in the middle of an economic expansion, this would be healthy … but given where we are we’d definitely like to see significantly faster growth than this,” said Scott Hoyt, senior director for forecaster Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pa.

The unemployment rate of 7.8 percent has come down only recently to where it was when Obama took office, as alternate measures of unemployment showed large numbers of Americans working two jobs to make ends meet or slogging through jobs while searching for ones that pay better.

But the latest growth numbers from the Commerce Department show that business investment fell from July to September. Economists worry that the uncertainty surrounding what happens in coming weeks regarding the federal budget crisis of looming spending cuts and tax increases — called the fiscal cliff — is hurting growth and investment.

At year’s end, Bush administration-era tax reductions, extended by Obama, are set to expire. Several other tax breaks are set to end, too, and it comes as deep across-the-board spending cuts are scheduled to take effect if Congress can’t reach a budget deal. On top of that, the United States is expected to hit its debt ceiling in late February or March, and the next president will have to work with Congress either to raise it or to reduce spending severely.

If all these things are left without a fix, it could shave more than 4 percentage points off growth. With a current growth rate around 2 percent, that would amount to instant recession at a time when the Federal Reserve and Treasury have fewer bullets left to reverse it.

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