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US economy, though sluggish, may now be sturdier

Published: Wednesday, July 23 2014 1:11 p.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, July 23 2014 1:11 p.m. MDT

In this April 22, 2014 file photo, job seekers line up for a job fair at Columbia-Greene Community College in Hudson, N.Y. A far more durable U.S. economy has emerged from the wreckage of the Great Recession. And_tragically_ that has been a problem for the now five-year recovery.

Mike Groll, File, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Out of a seemingly hollow recovery from the Great Recession, a more durable if still slow-growing U.S. economy has emerged.

That conclusion, one held by a growing number of economists, might surprise many people. After all, in the five years since the recession officially ended, Americans' pay has basically stagnated. Millions remain unemployed or have abandoned their job searches. Economic growth is merely plodding along.

Yet as the economy has slowly healed, analysts say it has replaced some critical weaknesses with newfound strengths. Among the trends:

— Fewer people are piling up credit card debt or taking on risky mortgages. This should make growth more sustainable and avoid a cycle of extreme booms and busts.

— Banks are more profitable and holding additional cash to help protect against a repeat of the 2008 market meltdown.

— More workers hold advanced degrees. Education typically leads to higher wages and greater job security, reducing the likelihood of unemployment.

— Inflation is under control. Runaway price increases would be destructive. Low inflation can lay a foundation for growth.

— Millions who have reached retirement age are staying on the job. This lessens the economic drag from retiring baby boomers and helps sustain consumer spending.

Over the long run, such trends could help produce a sturdier economy, one less prone to the kind of runaway growth that often ends in a steep and sudden slump.

The downside? At least in the short term, these same trends have prevented the economy from accelerating. When consumers borrow and spend less freely, for example, they restrain growth.

And when people seek to work longer or become more educated, often there aren't enough jobs for all of them, at least not right away. People with advanced degrees can often find lower-paying jobs that don't require much education. But when they do, they tend to push some people with only a high school education into unemployment.

One of the most striking trends in the recovery has been an aversion to personal debt. A typical U.S. household owes $7,122 in credit card debt, $1,618 less than at the start of the recession, according to analysis of New York Federal Reserve data by the firm Nerd Wallet. (After factoring in inflation, the balance is $2,900 lower.)

Kevin Quigley, a massage therapist, found that by the time the recession struck, his card balance had ballooned to as much as $35,000. The 33-year old from University City, Missouri ascribed that to "thinking that I needed a lot of things."

Beginning in 2010, he consolidated his card debt and reduced it by $300 a month until it disappeared.

"Peace of mind became more important to me than stuff," Quigley said.

Two primary factors explain the decline in card debt: Lending standards were tightened, and consumers "just kind of froze in place," said Jelena Ewart, general manager of credit cards and banking at Nerd Wallet.

The American Bankers Association says card debt as a share of people's income has reached its lowest level in more than a decade. People increasingly pay off balances each month. And just 2.44 percent of card accounts are delinquent, compared with the 15-year average of 3.82 percent.

Researchers at the Cleveland Fed found that after adjusting for inflation, debt from mortgage and auto loans remains below pre-recession levels. Applications for credit by "deep subprime" borrowers — those most at risk of defaulting — have dropped 36 percent from pre-recession highs.

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