Which way is the economy heading? Is the recovery about to lose steam? Think of it this way:
American consumers are already spending about as much as they can, considering the slow growth of jobs, rising oil prices and the record amounts they've borrowed. In a statistical sense, consumers are pretty much tapped out.
Home construction never went through a recession, so it's unlikely to be the source of much additional growth. And with factories operating at well under capacity and office buildings still vacant, don't look for much of a growth spurt there, either.
The economy might have gotten a boost from the export surge that often accompanies a falling dollar. But the numbers show the trade deficit getting worse, not better.
Which leaves only one area -- business investment in computers and software, the key economic driver of the '90s -- available to sustain the recovery. And on that front, the signs are ambiguous.
The good news is that during the three months ending in June, tech spending by businesses increased 15 percent compared with the same period a year earlier, which is nothing to sneeze at. The bad news is that these increases are coming off a very low base, with many companies still feeling the hangover from the binge of tech spending during the '90s. Now that reluctance is translating into a buildup in unsold computer chips, an increase in order cancellations and a spate of disappointing quarterly reports.
Last week, for example, Cisco reported a 26 percent increase in quarterly sales, but its chief executive warned that customers were suddenly becoming more cautious.
Then Hewlett-Packard reported that its earnings did not grow at all in the second quarter as a result of weak sales in its business equipment division. Three executives were fired, and the firm lowered its sales and earnings projections for the year. HP shares plunged 15 percent.
And then there was Google, which was supposed to singlehandedly bring back the old Internet magic with its $2 billion stock offering. But excitement was waning even before Google hit a couple of snags, including an ill-timed interview by its founders in the latest Playboy magazine, and a $260 million settlement of a patent dispute with rival Yahoo. So sour was the mood on Wall Street that half a dozen tech companies decided to postpone their IPOs.
But on Friday, tech spirits revived after Dell reported strong quarterly sales of its desktop computers and notebooks, including a 20 percent increase in U.S. corporate sales and better than that in Europe and Asia.
What this probably signals is that the tech sector is in for a period of steady but not explosive growth in which strong firms will prosper but weak ones will get left behind. And while business investment in technology will certainly contribute to the recovery, it's unlikely to be strong enough to carry the rest of the economy with it. That was the '90s, and the '90s are not coming back.