Economic picture a bit fuzzy

College of Charleston economist Frank Hefner is seeking the right word to describe the outlook for 2010.

The best would be some sort of combination of optimistic, pessimistic and uncertain, he told the Columbia Rotary Club on Monday.

Why the confusion? Here's what Hefner told the gathering, which included S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster as well as Columbia city and judicial leaders:

Regulation muddies the future

With so many new programs from Capitol Hill and the White House trying to stimulate the economy, rules on everything from estate taxes to jobs credits seem to be moving targets.

"Tell me how you're going to make a five-year business plan. Good luck," Hefner said.

And health care reform adds to the uncertainty for companies that might rehire workers because they don't want to hit employment targets that could trigger certain requirements, he said.

Optimistic about what exactly

Some polls have suggested people are optimistic about the economy this year.

But do they really think the economy is turning around? More likely, they are hopeful things won't get worse, Hefner suggested.

"They are saying, 'Thank goodness we survived last year,' he said. "I don't think this will translate into people buying new cars and new houses."

Not very stimulated

"We cannot rely on government stimulus for sustained growth," Hefner said.

One reason: The government is borrowing money to pay for stimulus, and, like any loan, it has to be paid back.

And whose a key lender? China.

Who needs to get into the game

Banks couldn't get money as the economy neared disaster two years ago when credit markets froze, Hefner said.

Now, aided with federal bailout loans, "Banks are flush with cash but are doing nothing with it," Hefner said.

Shy after making bad loans that helped deflate the economy, banks need to take calculated risks now and hand out more loans to jump-start businesses, he said.

A slow, slow recovery

There is no quick turnaround. The nation will need years to return to pre-recession job and investment levels - based on even the most biggest growth spurts ever seen, Hefner said.

And growth will come with little investment from businesses.

Consider: There are plenty of homes since construction outpaced population growth. And factories that slowed production now have capacity to ramp up without expanding.

The slow, jobless recovery could mimic Japan in the 1990s, when that nation lost 10 years of economic growth, he said. "That possibility is growing."

What could be a sign things are getting better

Watch for immigrants, Hefner suggested.

They came into the country over the past couple of decades because work was plentiful.

Now they're leaving. "That's not a good indication of things," he said.