Signs suggest a better economy if 'cliff' is averted
Washington • Fresh signs of a strengthening U.S. economy on Friday signal that if Congress and the White House can avoid the "fiscal cliff," the economic recovery might finally accelerate in 2013.
Consumers spent and earned more in November. And for a second straight month, U.S. companies increased their orders for a category of manufactured goods that reflects investment plans.
In light of the latest figures, some analysts said the economy could end up growing faster in the current October-December quarter and next year than they previously thought.
"I see momentum building," said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors. "If Washington makes the moves it needs to make, then the economy should pick up speed next year."
That's a big "if." House Republicans called off a vote on tax rates and left budget talks in disarray 10 days before the package of tax increases and spending cuts known as the fiscal cliff would take effect.
Still, helping lift the optimism of some analysts was a government report that consumer spending, which fuels about 70 percent of the economy, rose 0.4 percent in November compared with October. Spending had dipped 0.1 percent in October. But that decline was linked in part to disruptions from Superstorm Sandy.
Incomes rose 0.6 percent in November, the biggest gain in 11 months. It reflected a rebound in wages and salaries, which had been depressed in October. Damage from Sandy in the Northeast prevented some people from working at the end of October and reduced wages at an annual rate of $18 billion.
A separate report Friday showed that a category of durable-goods orders that tracks business investment surged 2.7 percent. That gain followed an upwardly revised 3.2 percent jump in October, the biggest in 10 months.
The back-to-back increases followed a period of weakness in so-called core capital goods that had raised concerns about business investment, a driving force in the economy.
The economy grew in the July-September quarter at a solid 3.1 percent annual rate. But some analysts said they thought growth would slow significantly in the October-December period. They predicted that consumers and businesses would cut back on spending because of worries about the fiscal cliff.
But after Friday's reports, Peter Newland, an economist at Barclays Capital, said Barclays is raising its estimate of growth in the current quarter to a 2.4 percent annual rate, from a previous estimate of 2.2 percent.
Naroff said he thinks growth in the fourth quarter can reach a 2.6 percent annual rate. He said he expects growth to hit a rate of around 3.2 percent in the January-March quarter and 3.6 percent in the April-June quarter.
He said those estimates are based on his confidence that Washington policymakers will avert the sharp tax increases and spending cuts, which could trigger a recession if they remain in place for much of 2013.
Naroff said U.S. economic growth would benefit next year from a rebounding housing market, gradual hiring gains that will boost incomes and the likelihood that Europe's financial crisis will ease and dampen U.S. exports less than in 2012.
But he said his optimistic forecasts would be derailed if the economy goes off the fiscal cliff in January, which could send shockwaves through financial markets.
"If the fiscal cliff is breached, the biggest concern is confidence," Naroff said. "I remain hopeful that saner heads will prevail in Washington."
Economists said the budget impasse and the uncertainty it's created about tax rates are reducing consumer confidence. The University of Michigan said Friday that its index of consumer sentiment for December fell to 72.9, its lowest point since July. It was a sharp drop from the November reading of 82.7, a five-year high.
Chris G. Christopher Jr., senior economist at IHS Global Insight, said he still expected holiday retail sales to increase a respectable 3.9 percent this year over last year despite slumping consumer confidence. And he said spending momentum should continue into 2013 as long as the fiscal cliff is resolved in a way that avoids damaging the economy.
"We are assuming that the fiscal cliff does get resolved, and if it does, we should see strong consumer spending and momentum for the economy in 2013," Christopher said. "But if we go down the fiscal cliff, then the first quarter will not be pretty."