If the economic news is bad over the next few weeks, it won't be because of Hurricane Charley.
Despite what you might hear from companies like
or from bullish economists and politicians, the hurricane in Florida is not to blame for sluggish economic growth.
"It's a convenient excuse just to hide what's going on," said Richard Yamarone, an economist at Argus Research. "There's profound weakness, especially on behalf of consumers, and that's causing a deceleration in macroeconomic activity."
On Monday, Wal-Mart said same-store sales for August would be below estimates, in part because it was forced to close about 75 stores temporarily when the hurricane hit. The company now expects sales to be flat to up 2% this month, after earlier predicting a 2% to 4% rise.
Talk that Charley could negatively impact the payroll data in August also has begun to swirl recently, because the storm hit during the survey week. Meanwhile, some say that industrial production could be weaker than expected because the hurricane shut down facilities in its path for several days.
Still, David Rosenberg, chief economist at Merrill Lynch, said Charley should have a negligible influence on the economy overall. "As powerful as the storm was ... it impacted just one state: Florida," he said.
While some retailers were hurt by store closings in August, others should have benefited from sales of plywood, batteries and nonperishable food in preparation for the storm. Over the long term, the hurricane actually should be a slight positive for retailers as consumers have to replace items that were lost.
The hurricane isn't likely to depress August payrolls either, although economists say it could have a small bearing on the number of hours worked.
"Don't forget that to be counted as employed, you only have to log in one hour worked per week," said Rosenberg. "Since ... the hurricane really hit the continental U.S. on Friday
Aug. 13th, it is unlikely that it had a pronounced effect on payrolls."
As for concerns over industrial output, pundits say manufacturers probably shifted production to other parts of the country, which minimized the overall damage.
While it's hard to gauge how much impact Hurricane Charley will have on gross domestic product, economists say it actually should provide a mild boost over the coming year, as property is rebuilt and investment ramps up.
Hurricane Andrew, which struck Florida in August 1992, reportedly added 0.4% to GDP while Hurricane Hugo, which hit South Carolina in 1989, added about 0.2%. Rosenberg predicts that Charley will add 0.1% to growth over the coming year.
Even so, investors might want to prepare for some weak economic numbers over the near term. In recent weeks, consumer confidence has been deteriorating because tax relief has been fading and the job market has remained stagnant. These issues are putting a strain on consumer spending, which accounts for two thirds of economic growth.
"Some of the psychological funk that plagued the economy in 2002 seems to have re-emerged," said Ethan Harris, senior economist at Lehman Brothers.
Although jobless claims have declined over the past few weeks, recent manufacturing surveys from the Philadelphia and New York Federal Reserve banks suggest that hiring is still slow. Economists estimate that 150,000 nonfarm payroll jobs were created in August, a number that barely would keep up with the growth in the labor force.
Meanwhile, high oil prices are taking a toll, particularly on lower-income households. According to a survey by UBS and the International Council of Shopping Centers, 46% of households with income below $50,000 said they were cutting back spending compared with just 26% of households with income over $50,000.
Although chain-store sales rose 0.1% in the latest week, the ICSC cut its forecast for year-over-year same-store sales growth in August to 2.5% from 3%. Another survey by Redbook Research found that year-over year sales at major retailers increased 1% last week, down from the prior week's pace of 2.3%.
Harris said it is "troubling" that the economy appears to be slowing at a time when momentum should be building. He now expects economic growth to be below potential, rather than above it, for the next six quarters. "Below-potential growth and contained inflation will push the
to the sideline ... in December," he said.
For now, Federal Reserve officials don't appear too worried. Dallas Fed Bank President Robert McTeer told
that the expansion is "self-sustaining" and "not terribly fragile," and Fed Governor Ben Bernanke echoed these remarks in an appearance on the
Nightly Business Report
. On Friday, investors will have a chance to see if Fed Chief Alan Greenspan shares these views as he speaks at the Kansas City Fed symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyo.