Monday, August 14, 2006

Alive and Kicking

(The U.S. economy is still hitting on all cylinders. Rising jobs and incomes appear to be trumping higher gas prices and cooling within the housing sector. Lots of economic data out this week on inflation, production, and housing—will tell us whether Q3 could be growing at 3 percent to 3.5 percent, rather than 1 to 2 percent, as the cult of the bear would have it. Here's a portion of my latest column ("Alive and Kicking") at National Review Online that discusses all this in greater detail...)

"The great American consumer has been written off so many times in the last couple of years, just like the rest of the economy. But he/she is alive and kicking. Another great story never told.

Retail sales came in at 1.4 percent for July, way above Wall Street expectations, while core sales excluding autos, gas, and building materials — a number that feeds directly into GDP — increased 0.6 percent. Over the past 3 months core sales rose 6.7 percent at annual rate, and in the past year they’re up 7.4 percent. Excluding autos alone, sales have gained 9.2 percent in the last 12 months. That’s big time.

Sales of consumer durables also were strong. Some economists sounded the death knell for consumers when durable sales dropped in the second quarter. But in the newly released July report, durable-goods sales rose across the board: 3.1 percent for cars, 1.9 percent for electronics and appliances, 1.8 percent for building materials, and 0.5 percent for furniture. These are fat monthly gains.

Far too many investors, hedge fund managers, and economists link the housing slowdown to an imminent consumer collapse. These bears are also quick to add rising gas prices and higher interest rates into their pessimistic outlooks. But they skip two very significant data points: jobs and incomes are still climbing.

It may well be that Wall Street keeps overestimating the monthly job gains, but the fact remains that jobs are being added at a noteworthy clip of about 125,000 per month and the unemployment rate remains low. Because hours worked and wages continue to rise, incomes are still increasing at a comfortable 6 to 6.5 percent yearly pace. If jobs and wages were falling each month, you could write off consumer spending. But that’s simply not happening.

Charles Biderman, of Trim Tabs Investment Research in Santa Rosa, California, adds an additional bullish factoid: Individuals now hold $6.3 trillion in savings accounts, money market funds, and CDs. In contrast, short-term debt — notably credit card and installment debt — stands at only $2.2 trillion, and is growing slowly. So, despite the housing slump, consumers have an excellent cash position. That is why Biderman is very bullish on the stock market, which he thinks will rise by 15 to 20 percent by year-end.

The cult of the bear will also be wrong on business capex spending. American businesses have even more cash on hand than consumers, bolstered by second-quarter profits that came in 4 or 5 percentage points above estimates. Even though business equipment and software investment declined 1 percent at an annual rate in the second quarter, it rose 15.6 percent in the first quarter. Averaging the two gets you 7.3 percent business capex for the first half of the year, and 6.9 percent for the last four quarters. Pretty hefty.

Since low tax rates on capital have rejuvenated investment returns and the overall economy’s animal spirits, this trend will only continue. Today’s low tax environment is also a job creator, as is the red-hot corporate and commercial real-estate market...."