Well, that was fast.

The Wall Street Journal on page one says economists are hedging their bets on a recession, saying the business outlook has improved markedly in just the past month. And New York Times columnist David Leonhardt similarly writes on C1 that what was “fanciful” a month ago—that the U.S. might avoid recession—is less so now, something Bloomberg suggests is signaled by new consumer data.

What happened?

The Federal Reserve put a floor under the cratering credit markets with the bailout of Bear Stearns and the opening of direct loans to Wall Street. Its slashing of interest rates is beginning to filter through the economy. The Journal, the Times, Bloomberg, and the Financial Times all point to the $110 billion in stimulus checks the government has begun passing out as a brake on any free-fall.

But the immediate impetus for the stories is a spate of not-miserable economic reports, including employment and consumer spending. Consumer spending dropped 0.2 percent in April (that’s not inflation-adjusted, in real terms it was worse), but the Journal and Bloomberg say it was up a better-than-expected 0.5 percent, not counting car sales.

Employment meanwhile hasn’t fallen off the charts, though it’s down significantly. While the NYT sees that indicator as half-empty, writing that the economy has fewer jobs than it did six months ago, “a perfect predictor of recessions” over the last half a century, the Journal sees it as something like half-full, noting that new jobless claims are “well below” the 400,000 level typically seen in recessions.

But the list of factors the economy must overcome is daunting: soaring energy and food costs (and import prices, up 15 percent from a year ago) that are kicking up inflation, tighter credit, a housing market that has another few trillion of home wealth to burn through, overextended consumers more pessimistic than at any time in decades, and a financial system that is still deeply troubled. The Journal puts a good bit of news down low, reporting that the Minneapolis Fed president told it the U.S. can’t avoid recession.

And, as the Journal notes, a recession is “a period of significant decline in economic activity… that lasts more than a few months.” With 0.6 percent annual growth in the last six months, that definition is already awfully close to being met. If the U.S. pulls out of this nosedive, it’ll be one for the history (and econ) books.

Recession. No recession. Recession

As if to prove economists are of two minds, here’s the same Lehman Brothers’ dismal scientist in different papers. The FT:

“Given all of the negative news… the strength in this report is a startling reminder of the resilience of the US consumer,” Drew Matus, senior economist at Lehman Brothers, said.

And the WSJ:

“I think the problems are just starting,” said Lehman Brothers economist Drew Matus, citing high gasoline prices and tightening lending standards, saying that prolonged stagnation can be worse than a recession.

Bloomberg and the WSJ report that Fed chief Ben Bernanke said financial markets are “far from normal,” which is Fedspeak for “still screwed,” and some officials are making noise about raising interest rates to battle inflation. The FT reports that the Fed is looking at disowning the Greenspan laissez-faire philosophy of asset bubbles.

Reuters says a Philadelphia Fed survey of economists finds that the odds of a recession have increased. Non-economists, as polled by the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg, say we’re already in recession by a seventy-eight to seventeen margin.

UBS official indicted

The business papers report that the U.S. indicted a former UBS banker and a Lichtenstein executive, accusing them of helping a rich developer skip out on taxes—a “widening probe” sparked a couple of months ago when a bank employee in the tiny European bank haven leaked incriminating info to investigators.

The FT and the Journal both front the news, which the NYT puts inside its business section. The Journal’s lede is the juiciest, saying the two are charged with “opening secret bank accounts, destroying documents, using Swiss credit cards and filing false tax returns.”

The WSJ says the charges are further evidence that “elaborate tax-evasion schemes available only to the super-rich are teetering toward a collapse.” Here’s how serious the feds are: the UBS guy they charged fell into their nets when he came singing to them about the wrongdoing, the Journal says, but “prosecutors opted to indict him anyway.” Pass the popcorn, this ought to get interesting.

Refiners pinched by oil prices

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.