Hold that sigh of relief. America hasn’t reached a comfort zone just yet.
Yes, the economy and jobs are growing. In fact, they’re strong enough that the Federal Reserve finally found the confidence to raise interest rates for the first time in nearly a decade.
So why has U.S. manufacturing activity slowed to a near-recession pace? Why aren’t paychecks fattening up? And why did the stock market essentially fall flat in 2015 except for technology stocks?
It turns out that the outlook is far from settled. The new year, by many forecasts, likely offers moderate gains at best along with the challenge of heightened swings in the collective mood.
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“A little more of the same,” is the description offered by Steve Soden, president and chief executive of Great Plains Trust Co. in Overland Park.
The new year can benefit from the work that 2015 put in figuring out what’s what. We know about oil’s sharp price drop and the troubles it helped spawn in the junk bond market. The wait is over as to when the Fed finally would start pushing borrowing costs higher.
“The China slowdown is not going to sneak up on anybody now,” Soden said, noting the economic weakness had caught financial markets and Fed policymakers by surprise last summer.
More surprises may lie ahead, perhaps in the presidential campaigns or fall elections. But America seems to have a grasp on the economic problems at hand. This year will test how well it handles them.
The New Year kicks off with stronger spirits and financial footings for the American consumer.
After years of reducing debt burdens, household budgets have gotten a boost from about 200,000 new jobs a month and cheap oil. Falling gasoline prices put $115 billion into consumer pocketbooks in 2015, according to automotive group AAA.
The economic question is what happens to all that extra money in consumers’ hands. Evidence is mounting that they’re starting to spend it.
Economist John Ryding pointed to it in a CNBC discussion about the nation’s gross domestic product, which measures the output of the whole economy.
Final sales, the consuming number in the GDP report, rose at nearly a 3 percent pace, much faster than the 2 percent growth in the overall economy. Ryding added that job growth looks more like what an economy growing at 3.5 percent produces.
His take is that this economy is no longer limited by the demand for goods and services, which had been the case since the Great Recession struck in 2007 and the financial crisis hit in 2008.
Supply seems to be the limiting factor to Ryding.
Cars are selling like hotcakes. Houses are doing better, though certainly not as well as autos.
Still more help for U.S. consumers may come this year in the form of higher wages, said economist David Rosenberg of Gluskin Sheff + Associates Inc. in Toronto. He outlined pressures to boost pay — beyond minimum wage legislation — to conclude in a Dec. 22 report “we could be on a verge of a breakout in wage growth.”
Faster growing economies in China, India
Outside the United States, demand is not so strong heading into the new year. It is downright weak, and economies are showing it.
The global economy likely will grow 3 percent in 2016, according to the forecast at Wells Fargo Securities’ economics group. Though faster than what Wells Fargo is forecasting for U.S. growth, it’s a weak number considering it includes much faster-growing emerging economies such as India and China.
Worries over China’s slowdown pushed the U.S. stock market down about 10 percent last summer and were factors in the Fed’s decision to delay raising U.S. interest rates until December. The worries also hurt other economies, like Brazil’s, that produce commodities that China consumes.
Japan might eke out a 1 percent growth rate. Europe could grow faster than that but slower than the United States.
Add it up and Wells Fargo economist Jay Bryson sees limited global growth for the coming year. The world economy will need until 2017 just to get back to average growth, in his forecast.
“That’s not great guns, but it’s not a global recession, either,” Bryson said.
It will, however, limit how much other economies will help U.S. growth. Exports already are hurting thanks to a surprisingly strong U.S. dollar overseas. The strong dollar means foreign buyers have to convert more of their own currencies to buy American goods, even though U.S. exporters didn’t raise prices.
Warnings for exports
America’s economy also faces problems this year.
Slower manufacturing exports join a slowdown among energy companies hurt by sharply lower energy prices. Mining and agriculture also are down.
“All four of those areas have slowed to the point that many people would term them to be in recession,” said Mark Vitner, another Wells Fargo economist.
Not to worry. Vitner says it’s the economic recovery shifting from being led by production to being led by consumption.
For 2016, there isn’t a big difference among forecasters. The U.S. economy likely continues to grow in the range of 2 percent or 2.5 percent. A little more of the same.
At the same time, business investment remains weak, offering a toehold for economic bears.
Part of the problem is that the junk bond market is crumbling. It’s a key source of corporate funding for companies with poor credit ratings. And trouble there historically has foreshadowed problems for the whole economy.
Steven Wieting at Citi Private Bank got attention recently for saying he sees a 1-in-4 chance of a U.S. recession in 2016. The risk of a downturn jumps to 50-50 in 2017, he told viewers of CNBC.
Steven Ricchiuto, chief economist at Mizuho Securities USA Inc., says inflation remains a problem for the United States. More specifically, he’s talking about the lack of inflation here and abroad.
Weak inflation means companies have little power to raise prices. And that leaves managers unable to bid up wages without sacrificing corporate profits and their jobs.
Fed chair Janet Yellen had said policymakers raised rates because they expect U.S. inflation to climb from low levels to the Fed’s 2 percent target. Ricchiuto called it a mistaken analysis.
“Now the Fed’s going to have to own it and live with it. And it’s not going to happen,” he said.
Investors, despite knowing where the trouble spots are, will have to earn their returns in 2016.
A report from U.S. Bank advises investors that “increased volatility and muted returns are apt to be hallmarks of 2016 performance.”
On the upside, stocks tend to do well in presidential election years, like 2016.
But there are headwinds. Here is the list from U.S. Bank: Slow growth in the global economy, resurgent terrorism, the Fed’s shift toward interest rate hikes, pressure on corporate profits and stocks’ elevated prices relative to profit outlooks.
The current 5 percent unemployment rate also poses limits on 2016’s potential stock gains, according to research by Jim Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Wells Capital Management Inc.
Paulsen says stocks tend to fare much better when unemployment is higher than 5 percent. Once the job market has recovered to that point, which he said economists consider “full employment,” stock returns weaken roughly by half.
“Although full employment does not necessarily end a bull market,” Paulsen wrote, “it does tend to significantly lower future stock returns.”
Paulsen’s analysis helps explain the reasoning behind a long-held Wall Street saying: “Don’t fight the Fed.” It means that stocks and bonds tend to struggle as interest rates climb — and rates should climb as the Fed stops holding them down.
Markets will continue to gyrate around decisions the Fed makes about future interest rate changes. And the Fed’s policymakers have indicated 2016 could see four more rate increases.
That’s a problem, says Ken Green, president of Mitchell Capital Management Inc. in Leawood. Financial markets essentially are ready for two rate increases in 2016. At some point, the two outlooks must reconcile. Think volatile stock prices.
Along the way, however, Green sees potential in stocks of companies that sell to consumers with discretionary dollars to spend — restaurants, movie theaters, apparel. He also likes health care company shares, especially pharmaceutical companies, and technology stocks.
So the new year has experts looking for a bit more inflation, workers expecting a bit more pay and investors braced for a bit more action at the Fed.
Of course, there could be worse things than a few Fed rate hikes ahead. Like no Fed rate hikes.
The Fed won’t stop unless it loses confidence in the economy’s strength and the job market’s improvements.