WASHINGTON (AP) _ The recession, shaping up as one of the shortest and mildest on record, could already be over, private economists say.
The National Association for Business Economics said that 60 percent of the economists on its forecasting panel believe the economy has turned the corner and is growing again. Only two of the 37 forecasters said they believe the downturn will linger into the spring.
``America's longest expansion in history has been followed by one of the shortest, shallowest recessions on record,'' said NABE President Harvey Rosenblum, director of economic research at the Dallas Federal Reserve bank.
The NABE's newest forecast put economic growth at 1.5 percent for this year and an even stronger 3.8 percent in 2003.
The Conference Board reported Thursday that its Index of Leading Economic Indicators, a key gauge of future activity, shot up 0.6 percent in January, its fourth consecutive monthly increase.
``The strong signal from the indicators is that the recession is ending and that the recovery could be more vigorous than earlier anticipated,'' said Ken Goldstein, a senior economist with the New York-based industry group that issues the index.
The financial markets were not impressed, however, by the new signs of an economic rebound. The Dow Jones industrial average closed down 106.49 at 9,834.68.
While the leading index was flashing signals of a rebound, another report Thursday showed that that last year's slowdown may not have been as severe as first believed.
The Commerce Department reported that the nation's trade deficit narrowed by 11.4 percent in December to $25.3 billion, its best showing since September.
This unexpectedly large improvement sent economists scurrying to upwardly revise their estimates for overall economic activity in the fourth quarter. Many said the gross domestic product may have risen by 1 percent in the October-December quarter, based on the stronger trade showing, instead of the originally reported 0.2 percent increase.
Kevin Hassett, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, said the statistics will show that the recession actually ended in November.
The National Bureau of Economic Research, the official arbiter of when recessions begin and end, has said the downturn began in March, ending a record 10-year stretch of prosperity. The bureau is not expected to issue a ruling on the end of the downturn for several more months.
If current indications hold up and the third quarter, when the GDP fell at a 1.3 percent rate, is the only negative period, the drop in economic output during the recession will be a small 0.3 percent, making this the mildest recession in U.S. history. That record has been held by the 1969-70 recession, which also ended a long expansion, when GDP fell by 0.6 percent.
President Bush's economic braintrust also expressed optimism about a rebounding economy during a round-table discussion with reporters.