Dead cat bouncing: The credit markets are waking up -- for now

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Ah, spring! When a young consumer's fancy turns to McMansions and Honda hybrids! Or, in this nasty climate, perhaps another stroll through the storied halls of your favorite institution of higher learning. (It may be April, but the economic forecast is still stuck in "wintry mix." Might as well sit on the sidelines and get a law degree.) Getting a mortgage or a loan still isn't a walk in the park, but it might feel like one if you were trying to get a loan six months ago, when A.I.G. and Lehman Brothers were in full meltdown, and the credit markets had seized up like a cramped swimmer.

Well, these days, despair might be ratcheted back to third gear. The New York Times today serves up cautious optimism for a "spring awakening" in the credit markets that reflects the national bailout blueprints and mirrors last week's Wall Street upswing.

"The revival is tentative and, like the gains in the stock market, which pulled back on Monday, it may well prove fleeting," warns the reporter Jack Healy. Still, after months of relentless despair, it's hard not to breathe a little sigh. The credit markets are more stable, interest rates for mortgages are at historic lows, and achieving your dreams is going to be a little easier.
Or will it? Not if the credit market is experiencing the dreaded dead-cat bounce, a common, ephemeral uptick that follows a cataclysmic tumble -- and precedes even deeper gloom. The model of such a misleading trend also exists beyond the financial world. Last year, political-statistics blogger Nate Silver's exhaustive fivethirtyeight.com accurately predicted a dead-cat bounce for John McCain's presidential campaign immediately after its selection of running mate Gov. Sarah Palin sent his poll numbers briefly skyrocketing.

No doubt a renaissance in the tightened markets, however brief, is a welcome change, especially if you really need a big loan this spring. But the analysts in the Times are hardly feeling festive, and that's a wise stance for all of us to take. Just because you can get a cheaper mortgage relatively easily today compared with last fall doesn't mean your job, your industry, or your country will be any more economically secure next week. Still, let's take a minute to savor the good news.

Ah, that felt good. We now resume our regularly scheduled program of feeling our way out of the woods.
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