11/11/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Can Man Challenges End Of Recession

"We're roaring out of a recession," Morgan Stanley's chief economist, Richard Berner, declared recently in a commentary he fired off to the firm's clients.

Sounds good, but not to Mildred Rodriguez, a manager of one of the midtown-Manhattan branches of New York's 26-store D'Agostino supermarket chain. She doesn't believe it. She feels any movement out of a recession is apt to be more like a whimper.

Berner, obviously more economics-savvy than Rodriguez, reasons that a temporary surge in vehicle production is likely to pace a much stronger rebound than he thought a month ago. As such, he sees the economy ready to hum again and projects current quarter GDP growth could jump 3% to 4% on an annualized basis. There's no mistaking the ingredients, for a sharp summer rebound, he says, including an inventory snapback and modest improvements in final demand.

On top of that, financial experts galore are backing up their recession-ending assertions by pointing to a bevy of sunny signs, such as increasing housing sales (although many are foreclosed and abandoned homes at greatly depressed prices), improvement in the leading economic indicators and a peppier stock market.

"The recession and the recovery are starting to look more V-shaped," Berner say a (reference to a sharp economic downturn, followed by an equally sharp upturn).

While Rodriguez doesn't have Berner's economics expertise, she does have the street smarts of knowing what's going on with supermarket shoppers. For example, judging from her experiences with used soda cans, she figures the economy is still sputtering and will experience an extremely slow recovery.

What in the world do used soda cans have to do with the tempo of the economy?

D'Agostino, it turns out, is one of a number of New York supermarket operators that pays 5 cents for the return of a used soda can. That's something you might think kids would do to add to their piggy bank savings.

Forget it, That's not the way it is these days. D'Agostino, as well as Food Emporium, another popular New York supermarket chain, tell me they have been receiving growing returns of such cans (later recycled) -- not from children, but from apparently needy adults.

"It's getting to be like a money-making business for some people," Rodriquez says. "They need money. So they go to neighborhood buildings and corner garbage cans looking for soda cans and more of them are coming back with their cans day after day." The sizable number of returns leads Rodrigez to question the notion that the recession is indeed over.

D'Agostino limits the number of cans a person can bring into the store at any time to 240 or $12 worth

A Food Emporium manager named Joe (he wouldn't give his last name) tells me based on his experiences the economy isn't picking up very much. "You can't believe the number of people bringing in these cans. And I'm talking about loads of people, men and women. Some men, looking like Wall Street bankers, are well dressed, wearing jackets and ties. I even had a guy come in the other evening in a tux with a bag of 100 cans. If the recession has ended like the experts say, I can tell you these people don't seem to know it or believe it."

Joe notes, too, that a number of customers are even pushing cashiers for discounts when the bill runs $25 and over. So far, his store hasn't succumbed to such requests, but he thinks if the economy continues sour, such discounts at some point could be a possibility. He also observes that the number of shoppers using discount coupons is going through the roof. His conclusion: "Anyone who says the recession is over is not really living in the real world."

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. One of them could well be of a man in his early forties whom I spotted sitting on the steps outside a Food Emporium unit with a big plastic bag, easily containing hundreds of soda cans at his side. Wearing shorts, a t-shirt and reading the Wall Street Journal, he zipped into the supermarket after it opened its doors. Interestingly, that Food Emporium unit was located in the Sutton Place, one of the city's more affluent locations. It hardly seems like an area where some resident would rummage through garbage for soda cans in an effort to make a few bucks.

What makes it all so relevant is that at least one segment of society -- the growing can man population (and let's not forget the ladies) -- are sounding off loud and clear that the widely heralded death of the recession is greatly exaggerated.

I realize, of course, such informed financial minds as Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner have been telling us for months the recession is history, but just maybe they ought to chat with a can man. Clearly, economically speaking, everything is not coming up roses everywhere.

Write to Dan Dorfman at