The economy has been in a tepid, soft, slow recovery for the past five-and-a-half years. It’s the weakest rebound in generations. The Commerce Department’s revision of fourth-quarter GDP shows that nothing much has changed. Over the past year, real economic growth registered 2.4 percent, slightly higher than the recovery average. It ain’t much.
Meanwhile, winter economic reports for retail sales, manufacturing, and capital investment point to a weaker first quarter, perhaps around 1 percent. And Wall Street is talking about a possible profits recession, with expectations of a 2 or 3 percent drop in corporate earnings for the first half of 2015. So the market bears are out in full force.
Now, let’s acknowledge that coming off a deep recession, the rebound should have been 4 or 5 percent, not 2 percent. By some calculations, GDP is 10 percent — or nearly $2 trillion — below its long-term trend, and jobs may be lagging by 8 to 10 million.
Government entitlement transfers pay people not to work. Family breakdown has created a poverty trap for the lowest economic groups. Upward mobility is lagging. And the government has attacked the high-end movers and shakers with tax hikes and overregulation.
And unfortunately, a damaging business psychology prevails. It says that success must be punished, and that redistribution is the way to solve inadequate growth, inequality, and unhappiness.
But … all this said … it’s possible to be too pessimistic.
Let’s start with profits, the mother’s milk of stocks and lifeblood of the economy. The recent GDP report shows a slight profits decline in 2014, the first in years. But this is misleading.
More important, the core measure of earnings, domestic nonfinancial profits, increased 1.4 percent in the fourth quarter and 7.8 percent for 2014. On an annual basis these profits increased $262 billion and were widespread across industries.
The big problem is not the U.S., but the rest of the world, which is mostly in recession and saw profits drop $36 billion in the fourth quarter. At roughly 18 percent, profits from the rest of the world account for the smallest share of corporate earnings since 2006.
By the way, GDP profits from the National Income Accounts are far larger, and therefore more telling, than S&P 500 profits. Initial quarterly estimates from GDP cover about 9,000 companies. Over time, annual revisions will cover roughly 4 million companies. And GDP profits are benchmarked to IRS tax filings, with no accounting shenanigans.
Another economic positive is the rise of the consumer. Rex Nutting of MarketWatch reminds us that consumers got a big windfall from plunging energy prices. So far they’ve saved it, but that may change. Real incomes adjusted for taxes and inflation jumped at a 7.7 percent annual rate over the past three months. This could set the stage for a big boost in consumer spending.
The terrible winter has taken its toll in Q1. But family spending may jump come spring and summer. Along with this, the basic core of the private economy (consumption plus investment), which rose over 4 percent in the fourth quarter and 3.3 percent for 2014, will continue to advance.
Did somebody say King Dollar? It’s holding down consumer prices and business costs (including energy). Even with a lousy world economy, U.S. exports increased 4.5 percent annually in the fourth quarter while imports jumped 10.4 percent. So U.S. businesses are very competitive regarding export sales, and the rise in American imports from overseas will bolster the international economy.
One last encouraging point: C&I business loans have increased over 15 percent annually in the last three months and about 12.5 percent in the past year. That’s a good sign, especially for Main Street business activity, which has been lagging for years.
The Fed will probably raise its target rate later rather than sooner, smaller rather than larger. I’m betting on October and December for some quarter-point rate hikes. That’s consistent with a high dollar and low commodity prices. I doubt long-term rates will change much at all.
So moderate growth, rising core profits, and a still accommodative Fed set the stage for a better stock market as the year goes on. I’m still in the “buy the dip” camp. We’re not going to get the kind of growth that America is capable of producing until we get tax and regulatory relief and a better attitude about free-market capitalism. But I wouldn’t get too pessimistic.
There’s no recession or inflation in sight, and America is a very resilient place.
Don’t bet against it.