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President Barack Obama sees “glimmers of hope” in the US economy, citing a pick-up in lending to small businesses and lower mortgage rates as signs that the country is weathering the financial crisis.Accused by some commentators of talking down the economy since his election, Mr. Obama yesterday was cautiously optimistic after a meeting with Ben Bernanke, Federal Reserve chairman, and Sheila Bair, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

 

He said lower mortgage rates were “contributing to stabilization of the housing market” and a government program to support loans to small businesses had seen a 20 per cent increase in loans last month.

 

The positive tone follows comments on Thursday from Lawrence Summers, chief economic adviser to the White House, in which he predicted the “sense of freefall” in the economy would end in the next few months.

 

Mr. Summers cautioned that an improvement in unemployment would lag behind a broader economic recovery. Unemployment rose to 8.5 per cent last month, a new 25-year high.

 

Yesterday, Mr. Obama also tempered his more upbeat message, saying “the economy is still under severe stress . . . we’re still seeing a lot of job losses, a lot of hardship, people finding themselves in very difficult situations either because they’ve lost their home, they’ve seen their savings deteriorate, and they’re still at risk of losing their jobs”.

 

While the possibility remains that Mr. Obama may ask Congress for more funds to follow his $787bn fiscal stimulus, he has made a political calculation in not sounding too upbeat. A stock market rally has helped bolster confidence, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average rising 23 per cent in the last month.

 

Meanwhile, positive news on Chinese trade and South Korean growth buoyed sentiment yesterday even as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development said it saw little evidence of a global economic recovery in the making.

 

Beijing said March shipments were down 17.1 per cent from a year before, an improvement on February’s 25.7 per cent slide. Meanwhile, South Korea’s central bank said its economy squeezed out 0.2 per cent sequential growth in the first quarter after contracting rapidly in late 2008.

 

However, leading indicators for the top economies released yesterday by the OECD offered little to support the recovery theory.

 

These indicators, which typically turn five months before the end of a recession, continue to point to a strong slowdown in all 11 big economies monitored. Although “tentative signs of improvement in the rate of deterioration in the outlook are appearing in some countries” – such as Italy and France – “the emphasis on tentative cannot be overstated”, the OECD said.

 

The update draws on February data, and does not include positive news such as Chinese trade and Korean growth data.

 

Reporting by Tom Braithwaite and Krishna Guha in Washington, Song Jung-a in Seoul, Jamil Anderlini in Beijing, Dan Pimlott in London and Tim Johnston in Pattaya

 

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