Exports have fully recovered, but hold the champagne

FORTUNE – After more than a two-year slump, the U.S. is finally exporting as much as it did before one of history’s longest economic recessions. Between June 2008 and April 2009, U.S. goods and services sold to the world fell by 23%, or $39 billion. Since then, exports have risen by 32% or $42 billion, regaining all of their previous declines, and then some.

The rebound was driven largely by demand from our North American neighbors and Asia – economies that fared the financial crisis relatively better than debt-ridden Europe. Exports to Canada and Mexico rebounded by $17 billion, after falling by $11 billion during the recession that started December 2007 and ended June 2009, according to Capital Economics. Similarly, exports to China rose by $4 billion – more than recouping its previous fall of $1 billion.

Indeed, this could be taken as good news. It signals that the worlds’ economies are doing relatively better, that America’s factories have responded eagerly, and that financing for trade has improved since the financial crisis shrunk credit markets. And U.S. exports are likely to rise further in the coming months, driven also by a weaker U.S. dollar, which helps make the purchase of goods and services cheaper for foreigners.

But even at a time when it seems America’s slow-growing economy needs all the help it can get, a full-on recovery of exports likely won’t translate much to GDP growth. The U.S. still buys a lot more from foreigners than it sells – enough to virtually wipe out the gains from exports. Things can certainly change a few years from now, but exports still make up only about 12% of the U.S. economy.

Since the U.S. probably can’t count on exports to drive growth, Fortune takes a look at how the rest of the GDP equation has faired.


How much consumers spend on everything from TVs to clothes and cars make up the biggest part of the U.S. economy, about 70%. During the three months leading to the official start of the Great Recession, real consumer spending peaked during the fourth quarter of 2007. And as the chart shows, spending fell in big ways every quarter before rising again at the start of 2010.

Even so, America’s biggest contributor of economic growth has some ways to go before full recovery. Real consumer spending per capita on an annual basis rose to $30,336 by March 2010, but it’s still lower than the $30,781 peak at the end of 2007.

And it remains to be seen if and how much higher gas and food prices could hamper consumers’ pocketbooks. Indeed, the chart shows big improvements, but it’s still uncertain how genuine the rebound really is. Unemployment is still at a high 9%, and the housing market is still in shambles as home prices are expected to fall through 2011.


During the recession, spending by companies on everything from software to computers and copy machines dropped off considerably as executives made deep staff cuts to save costs and keep profits up.

Investments peaked during the first three months of 2008 and dropped off hugely for seven consecutive quarters. What’s more, investments as a percentage of GDP saw steep declines. At one point in 2008 investments made up 15% of GDP, but that’s fallen to just over 10% today.

And on a per capita basis, executives worried about the uncertain economy still aren’t spending as much as they did prior to the recession, even while many of the biggest companies sit on record levels of cash. Greg Daco, senior economist with IHS Global Insight, says higher oil prices, which tend to increase the costs of doing business, will likely add another layer of impediment.

Government spending

Thanks to President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus plan approved during the wake of the financial crisis, government spending surged during the height of the recession and for several months after.

But that trend, even though well-intended to give the fragile economy a boost, will likely reverse soon as Washington lawmakers faced with huge fiscal deficits call for budget cuts. With federal stimulus dollars waning, state and local governments are cutting spending — since March 2010, they’ve cut about half a million jobs. This will likely continue through 2011.

This could likely hamper economic growth, as government spending alone makes up about 19% of the economy – more than business investments and exports.

So while exports have fully recovered, the arguably bigger contributors of America’s economy still have much more healing to do.

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