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Is a slower slowdown a good sign?

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KAI RYSSDAL: Well another day, another stream of economic indicators that don’t sound all that hot. From the Commerce Department this morning we got the March report on orders for durable goods. There were fewer of those orders. Also, new home sales. There were fewer of those too, down 0.6 percent in March. And yet, economists say the steady dribble of not-so-hot news, isn’t so terrible. From Washington, Tamara Keith reports.

Tamara Keith: Two years ago, these economic indicators would have felt as good a punch in the stomach. The numbers from home sales to bank profits to industrial output, they’re not good.

Mark Zandi: It’s all bad, but it’s not at bad as it was and that ironically feels good.

Mark Zandi is chief economist at Moody’s He says new home sales are at incredibly low levels historically, but they’re not falling at the pace they were a year ago. Durable goods orders are weak, but hey, at least they’re not plunging.

Zandi: If you go back to October, November, December last year, January this, the economy felt like it was in complete free fall. No sense of any stability at all. Now you’re getting a sense that in certain parts of the economy there’s a floor, we’re finding it.

Another economist, Brian Bethune at IHS Global Insight describes it this way:

Brian Bethune: Some positive signs, a little bit of an improvement here and there.

So, the indicators are like, sort of positive.

Bethune: They’re all relatively weak. But when you add them all up, it’s definitely starting to look like we’re approaching a trough here in terms of the economic cycle.

Keith: And a trough is a good thing?

Bethune: Well, let’s put it this way, we have to get to a trough first before we get to a recovery.

But these signs of hope are all still pretty tenuous. Mark Zandi says that if unemployment keeps rising through the summer any improvement in the numbers and all this tentative optimism could easily be wiped out.

In Washington, I’m Tamara Keith for Marketplace.

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