US Economic Growth: The Last Line Of Defense

The recent turbulence in financial and commodity markets has cast a dark shadow over the near-term outlook. Not surprisingly, given the depth and speed of the rout, a number of forward-looking markets-based models are signaling more trouble ahead, namely an extended bear market in stocks and perhaps an economic recession for the US and elsewhere. But if there’s still a reason to refrain from throwing in the towel and joining hands with the bears it’s because the broad macro trend for the US remains positive. Is that because the economic numbers arrive with a lag and so the worst is yet to come? Maybe, but that view amounts to guesswork at this point.

Make no mistake: the next several days and weeks could be and probably will be critical for deciding if the US economic outlook has deteriorated from the recent evidence of moderate growth, which remains my working assumption (based on the available numbers to date). Nonetheless, the current climate is considerably more precarious, for several reasons, including:

• Weaker growth in China
• A sluggish expansion in the US manufacturing sector
• The potential for near-term tightening of US monetary policy

It’s easy to feel gloomy in the wake of the recent run of disappointing economic news and volatile market action. But it’s important to maintain a big-picture perspective, particularly on the US economic front. For all the bearish commentary, deciding that the macro jig is up still requires quite a lot of cherry-picking when poring over the numbers.

A few weeks ago I updated the monthly economic profile for the US, based on a broad set of indicators, and there was still no sign that a new recession was imminent. I’ve been running the analysis regularly ever since and the generally upbeat big-picture macro view hasn’t changed.

A markets-based estimate for estimating the macro trend tells a different story, as discussed yesterday. But markets are an imperfect measure for analyzing economic conditions and so it’s still reasonable to refrain from an all-out bearish call on the US macro trend—as long the hard economic data continues to skew positive.

Yes, there’s considerable weakness in US manufacturing these days, but for the moment the issue is one of slow growth rather than contraction. In any case, manufacturing—important as it is for monitoring the business cycle—is just one piece of the economic pie. It’s entirely possible that manufacturing could go slightly negative without throwing the US economy into a recession. The bigger question is whether manufacturing deterioration is spilling over into other corners. For the moment, that’s not the case.

Indeed, yesterday’s strong report on US auto sales for August suggest that consumer spending is holding up just fine. The seasonally adjusted annual rate of sales for light vehicles jumped to 17.8 million units—up 2.9% vs. a year ago and the highest level in a decade, according to Autodata Corp.

The key variable, of course, is employment, although here too the numbers still look encouraging. If the generally optimistic outlook on jobs is set to change, we’ll see the evidence in this week’s employment updates for August—today’s private-sector release from ADP and Friday’s official jobs report from Washington.

The bottom line: a markets-based view of the near-term future is sending a warning signal, and not without reason. But deciding if the higher level of risk is also the right call for the US macro trend is premature… at least for now. If the numbers in the days ahead tell us otherwise, the last refuge for optimism will give way. Meantime, a cautious and somewhat battered optimism is still a sensible reading—courtesy of the broad economic trend. For obvious reasons, however, the margin for disappointment from here on out has run out of road.

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