The question in an economic recovery invariably flips, in time, from when will it finally occur to what will it look like.
It becomes a question of character.
So, when did the U.S. economic recovery occur? Technically it began in July 2009 after a prolonged recession that began in December 2007.
Still, it didn't feel like a recovery of any value until this year, so it is time to look back and see what happened in 2013 and try to ascertain how solid this recovery might be.
To start, every modern recovery includes the harsh reality that progress is going to wipe some high-paying jobs from the economic landscape. Employers learn, as they lay people off, that advancing technology has allowed them to drop some of the workers they laid off for good. Let them flip burger or sell used cars. And that's what they do.
The U.S. recovery circa 2013 is still off balance. Slowly rising wages in Asia occurring while unions concede ground in the United States are contributing to the job recovery in U.S. manufacturing, but at a cost in good wages. Lower interest rates are helping and lower energy prices, while a factor in other nations as well, is helping convince business managers to keep work in the United States -- even expand operations.
Ford Motor Co. recently said it would add 5,000 jobs in the United States in 2014, about 3,300 of them salaried positions. It would also add 6,000 jobs overseas to launch 22 new or revised models in the 2014 -- the most launches for Ford in one year ever, the company said. And that is on top of 14,000 jobs Ford added in the past two years.
In a strange and promising development, foreign car companies are reporting exports rising from their U.S. manufacturing operations. When Toyota builds a car in Tennessee to export back to Asia, the tables have, indeed, begun to turn.
The year began with the recovery still wobbling. Then the housing market began to make a shift in the right direct. Home equity improved, which allowed consumer confidence and spending to expand, and higher demand is the only consistent, grassroots reason businesses expand. That means new jobs.
It all sounds jolly. The year began with unemployment at 7.9 percent and fell by November, to 7 percent. In the prior 12 months, the economy added an average of 195,000 jobs a month, the Labor Department said in early December.
The stock market provided more support. The Dow Jones industrial average started the year at 13,104.14 points and hit an all-time closing high at 14,253.77 points March 5, 5 1/2 years after setting its previous closing high.
"We think this could be the biggest bull market of our careers," the Times quoted Richard Bernstein, chief executive officer of Richard Bernstein Advisors as saying that day.
It was more like, "Hold onto your seats." The Dow hit six all-time closing highs in succession at that point and went on to establish new closing highs more than 50 occasions with the Dow establishing a new Everest on the last trading day of the year at 16,576.66.
The Standard and Poors's 500 also closed the year at a new zenith at 1,848.36.
Put in perspective, it took 5 1/2 years for the Dow to retake 14,000 points. It took 9 1/2 weeks to get from there to 15,000 and 28 weeks to get to 16,000 points. As the year closed out, with dividends included, the Dow was up 29 percent, while the S&P, including dividends, closed 32 percent higher on the year.
At a glance, at least four business sectors have done well this year: Housing, automobiles, energy and finance. And none of those are pet rocks. They are all core businesses that economists want to see doing well during a recovery.
So why does this thing still feel as shaky as it does? Well, there's Washington for one thing.
While some of the budget mess can be traced to the 2011 debt ceiling fiasco, 2013 was the year the gloves came off and Washington went to bare knuckles with a partial government shutdown for the first 16 days in October.
Therein lies problem No. 1 for the recovery. While the yeomen at the U.S. Federal Reserve guide the economy forward, elected officials on the other side of town seem to be doing their best to throw a proverbial monkey wrench into the works. Not surprisingly, a recent Office of Personnel Management survey found federal worker job satisfaction was at 57 percent, an all-time low.
And that solid housing market recovery is sounding more hollow than it first appeared.
In December, online real estate marketplace RealtyTrac declared the foreclosure epidemic from the Great Recession was in clear retreat.
"While foreclosures will likely continue to stage a weak rally in certain markets next year as the last of the distress left over from the Great Recession is dealt with, it is highly unlikely that there will be a foreclosure comeback that poses any major threat to the solid housing recovery that has now taken hold," Daren Blomquist, vice president at RealtyTrac, said in a statement.
Further, in a widely touted statistic, the U.S. Department of Commerce in December said that housing starts soared in November, up 22.7 percent to an adjusted annual rate of 1.09 million.
Ominously, however, RealtyTrac reported in late November institutional home buyers in the United States had dropped off sharply in October compared to September.
Institutional buyers are, essentially, commercial buyers who gobble up homes to turn them around quickly or to turn into rental properties. It turns out, the housing market recovery, while not a sham exactly, has been largely propped up by speculative buying. In other words, the recovery has not been supported by young, up and coming couples with bright futures buying their first cozy nest, convenient to shopping. Instead, it has been propped up by entrepreneurial vultures pecking at the bones of a once thriving housing market. By October, even they were beginning to back away.
Those 195,000 jobs the economy has been adding per month is flat out not enough, some economists say. University of Maryland economics Professor Peter Morici calculates it will take a sustained 360,000 jobs per month to make a meaningful dent in the number of long-term unemployed, which stood at 4.1 million in November, the Labor Department statistics show.
At Wednesday's Federal Reserve press conference central bank Chairman Ben Bernanke said that the unemployment rate, while improved, was a sign both of more opportunities and a disconcertingly large number of workers leaving the workforce.
"The recovery is far from complete," he said.
The Fed projects unemployment will fall to 6.3 percent to 6.6 percent in 2014 and to 5.3 percent to 5.8 percent in 2015. The gross domestic product, the policymakers predict, will be up about 2.2 percent to 2.3 percent this year and rise to about 3.8 percent in 2014.
The stock market, meanwhile, isn't much help, either. Wealth generally means more trips abroad. It means children go to more expensive schools. It means television sets get bigger. But it takes, give or take a marginal percentage, the same number of workers to make a large TV as it does to make a small one, so wealth, unfortunately, does not mean manufacturing jobs will begin to blossom like spring bulbs.
All that said, the Federal Reserve chose in December to begin to taper off on its $85 billion per month asset purchasing program as of January when Vice Chairwoman Janet Yellen takes the helm at the central bank and Bernanke returns to private life.
Of all the brave moves Bernanke made as Fed chair, one has to assume he took his last months in office to begin the retreat from easy money policies just so he could take some of the heat from Yellen if the move turns out to be a dud.
The year had its share of corporate shenanigans -- a few billion here or there, even trillions affected, very likely, with the widespread Libor manipulation scandal. But Bernanke had his eye on Main Street as well as Wall Street and that is about as much as you can ask of the Federal Reserve.
So, how solid is the recovery? Here are two ways to describe it:
"It's a vote of confidence from the Fed. We've been joking for the last few years that we've been living in our parents' basement and now our parents told us it's time to get out. I think that's a good thing," BlackRock Multi-Asset Income Fund portfolio manager Michael Fredericks told the Wall Street Journal after the Fed announced Dec. 18 it would begin to taper back on the quantitative easing program.
But it also brings to mind the end of "The Music Man," when all the kids come out and play their new instruments horribly, because the town has been scammed and nobody has been given a music lesson, but the parents stand around and gush with pride, anyway, thanking Professor Harold Hill for all he has done for them. But a recovery has to start somewhere. And this one, at last, is under way.