The U.S. Economy Is Actually Doing a Lot Better Than You Think - TheStreet

To look at markets is to presume the world is on fire. The bottom has fallen out of crude oil trading, international markets including Japan's Nikkei and Germany's DAX have entered a bear market and fourth-quarter earnings have been fairly mediocre so far.

But don't listen to the market noise: the U.S. economy is chugging along and might even be doing better than numbers suggest.

Just ask Mark Zandi.

Current calculations for the health of the economy in the U.S. miss a big chunk of growth from the technology sector, according to the chief economist at Moody's. And he argues the disconnect between official numbers and growth in the apps and cloud computing industries is growing ever larger as the industry becomes a bigger part of the overall U.S. economy.

Take the popularity of social media and digital content, much of which is free, as an example. The Bureau of Economic Analysis is unlikely to measure the "impact of Snapchat-like new products in its price and GDP estimates," Zandi argued in a recent post for TheStreet.

Zandi isn't alone in his beliefs current GDP calculations do not factor in the full contribution from rapidly-evolving and cutting-edge companies, such as those in the social media and tech space. 

"National income accounting, like financial accounting, operates according to a set of rules that often does not evolve fast enough to accurately measure the economic activity that takes place in the more innovative sectors of the economy," Dave Louton, professor of finance at Bryant University, told TheStreet. "Contribution to the growth of the economy is not as easily measured in these 'new economy' sectors."

While economists have yet to catch up on sectors like new media, investors and private-equity firms have clamored to throw their money at high-growth start-ups. Unicorns, referring to start-ups with private valuations of at least $1 billion, are becoming increasingly common, including well-known firms like Uber and Airbnb.

Even without the full contribution of tech companies, the U.S. economy looks in good shape, according to Zandi, one of the few in a world of slowing economies. 

Zandi forecasts the U.S. economy to have expanded by a little over 2% for the full year, slowing down to 1% growth in the final quarter, though later revisions could put those numbers higher as the changing nature of the tech sector is factored into calculations. Moody's estimates that weakness from inventory accumulation and a widening trade gap to have been a significant, albeit transitory, factor in late-year weakness for the economy.

"The domestic economy is on track and could continue on an upward path if it is not swamped by volatility from the international markets," added Louton. 

Others aren't so optimistic. The Atlanta Federal Reserve estimates fourth-quarter GDP at just 0.6%, while Barclays analysts peg growth at a mere 0.5%.

If those forecasts bear truth, there's a laundry list of possible factors that undercut U.S. growth. Crude oil prices have had a devastating impact on the energy sector and weakness in emerging markets likely hurt sales at some of the largest multinationals, including Apple.

However, even those more bearish forecasts for growth come with a caveat -- any quarterly weakness is an anomaly for the world's largest economy.

"Much of the pervasive gloom hanging over the U.S. outlook is unwarranted," said Barclays' Michael Gapen. "The evolution of labor markets, combined with a few special factors holding down fourth-quarter growth, gives us confidence that our outlook for modest U.S. growth remains intact."

The first estimate of fourth-quarter GDP will be released on Friday, January 29. Economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal expect an average 1.4% growth, though the range is vast with 0.1% growth the lowest of estimates and 3.6% the highest.