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The Economy Is Sputtering, so Why Invest in ETFs?

NEW YORK (ETF Expert) -- Many assume a stock market's direction depends on an economy's well-being. It does not. In fact, a meaningful correlation between stocks and gross domestic product does not exist.

Why, then, do the financial media focus so intently on the current state of an economy?

Presumably, if consumers and businesses are less capable of purchasing products and services from publicly listed companies, then those companies may struggle to generate the profits that drive the perceived value of share prices. Yet, it's not the economic condition itself that causes the decline in share prices. Rather, it is the fear of economic stagnation turning into economic collapse that sends share prices dramatically lower.

Some folks already understand that fear and greed move market-based securities. Writers and readers alike enjoy quoting Warren Buffett: "Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful."

What if you believe, as I do, that the economy is neither weakening significantly nor strengthening significantly? All things being equal, that might be enough for stock assets to climb the proverbial "Wall of Worry" without a hitch. I make some suggestions on how to invest using ETFs below.

All things are not like 2012 or 2013, though. The Federal Reserve is slowly withdrawing emergency level accommodation, injecting greater uncertainty about how the economy might fare in absence of its rate manipulation.

Stocks often have their biggest gains smack in the middle of recessions and their largest flops in anticipation of sharp economic downturns. For instance, even though the Bureau of Labor Statistics records the 2007-2009 recession as having started in December 2007, the powers-that-be did not identify that as the start time until 10 months later, in October 2008. In contrast, the stock market anticipated trouble a full year in advance (October 2007) of economists.

It follows that investors can think of stock markets and bond markets as "forward indicators" of economic direction. A stock market that enjoys a significant uptrend can be indicative of economic improvement, while a Treasury bond market that enters a significant uptrend can be indicative of hardships ahead.

Indeed, one often expects U.S. Treasuries and stocks to move in opposite directions over a period. Conversely, when these asset classes move in the same direction for a length of time, the Treasury bond market's fear is not in sync with stock investor greed.

Stocks and treasury bonds have both gained ground over the first three months into 2014. Why the dichotomy? Corporations are performing well, the economy is not.

Corporate success is attributable to a wide variety of factors. Cost containment is relatively easy when there is virtually no pressure to hire or raise wages. Corporations have also enjoyed an ability to borrow cheaply to repurchase shares, equipment or even pesky up-n-coming competitors.

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