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Recession over? Unlikely, say Buffett, Geithner

Who says the U.S. recession is over? Not Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. And not legendary investor Warren Buffett.
/ Source: Reuters

Who says the U.S. recession is over? Not Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. And not legendary investor Warren Buffett.

The private-sector National Bureau of Economic Research, considered the arbiter of recessions, announced on Monday it had pegged June 2009 as the end of the slump. That was no surprise to Wall Street economists, most of whom had long ago concluded the recession ended in the summer of last year.

But it put the Obama administration in an awkward position. How can policymakers declare the recession is over when nearly 15 million people are still out of work?

"I'm not an economist, and I'm not an academic," Geithner said on Wednesday when a Republican lawmaker tried to pin him down on whether he thought the recession was over. "And I would just say the following: This is still a very tough economy."

That answer didn't satisfy Representative Bill Posey, who at one point told Geithner to "man up" and give a clear yes or no answer.

"Let me try one more time," Geithner said after a lengthy exchange with Posey. "We are absolutely out of the worst stage, worst, most graded, most severe, most at-risk point of this crisis, absolutely, absolutely."

For Buffett, it's a matter of semantics rather than politics. The NBER considers a recession over when the economy gets back on the recovery path, while Buffett contends it isn't over until the damage is repaired.

"On any common sense definition, the average American is below where he was before, or his family, in terms of real income, GDP," Buffett said in a CNBC interview. "We're still in a recession. And we're not going to be out of it for a while, but we will get out of it."

So is the recession over?

By the NBER's definition, yes. While the economy is far from regaining its pre-recession heights, it is at least on the way up.

"It's more accurate to say that a recession -- the way we use the word -- is a period of diminishing activity rather than diminished activity," the NBER explains in the "frequently asked questions" section of its website.

Lest anyone think the NBER is getting overly optimistic, its FAQ section -- updated after Monday's declaration that the recession was over -- also includes sections on whether it identifies depressions, and whether it has a special designation for double-dip recessions.

No on both counts.