WASHINGTON — Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke last week became the latest economist to ask why the current economic recovery has been so weak. The question has inspired a cottage industry of studies, papers and speeches with often-esoteric and murky theories. The explanation is actually straightforward: The financial crisis and Great Recession scared the wits out of most Americans — not just consumers but also corporate managers, bankers and small-business owners. They are reacting accordingly. They’re cautious, risk-averse and defensive. They’re spending less and saving more.
The recovery’s languor is striking. Bernanke, speaking to the New York Economic Club, noted that the economy’s annual growth rate had averaged only about 2 percent since the recession officially ended in mid-2009. By contrast, the average growth rate of post-World War II recoveries at a similar stage is almost 4.5 percent. This means the economy is producing about $1.4 trillion less of everything, from Big Macs to cars, than it would if we’d had an average recovery.