Economic Data Could Reflect New Optimism

The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Optimism is afoot that economic activity and jobs creation are picking up from the anemic pace that so far has characterized the economic recovery.

Reports about innovative manufacturing and firms bringing production jobs back to America, the boom in onshore oil and gas development, stronger auto sales and profits, and rising stock prices are lifting assessments for 2012.

In January, forecasters expected fourth-quarter growth, when finally tallied, to be a bit better than 3% but for the pace to slow to closer to 2% in the first half of 2012.

Essentially, they reasoned, in the closing months of 2011, consumers increased spending faster than incomes grew; hence, credit card debt and auto loans would crimp disposable income and shopping in the new year.

And the foreclosure settlement between the largest banks and states attorneys general notwithstanding, the hangover of millions of unsold homes would continue to dampen new-home purchases and residential construction -- the latter being a major driver of robust economic recoveries in years past.

However, jobs creation was stronger than expected in December and January, boosting household incomes, and weekly unemployment claims are falling closer to levels associated with a genuinely healthy economy.

By dint of policy genius or good luck, President Obama may be playing a better hand than anticipated going into the critical first months of his re-election campaign.

Tuesday, the Commerce Department releases retail sales. After registering hardly any gain in December -- holiday shoppers reveled around Black Friday and Cyber Monday and then pulled back during the weeks before Christmas -- economists are expecting a robust jump for January of about 0.7% overall and 0.5% net of auto sales.

Higher gas prices will play some role, but gains in retail sales approaching those levels would indicate that 3% GDP growth in the fourth quarter was not a one off, and consumers saw the crocuses before the economists -- what else is new!

Also, much has been made of the overhang in consumer debt from the financial crisis and the housing market collapse, but consumer debt bottomed last April, and it appears that working Americans feel more secure about their jobs and are willing to take out car loans and purchase other durable goods on credit.

Thursday, the Department of Housing and Urban Development releases January housing starts, and economists expect them to rise about 2.7% percent from December. More importantly, economists expect a gradual improvement in residential construction throughout 2012 and 2013, despite the availability of so many existing homes priced below replacement cost.

The reasoning is simple. Many dwellings built during the boom years -- whether now offered for sale by banks or homeowners wishing to move -- are in the wrong locations or badly configured. Much of that housing was premised on cheap energy: It is far from jobs, requiring long commutes, and is expensive to heat. These homes are not attractive to young buyers.

Also, young professionals are more strapped these days: Starting salaries adjusted for inflation are lower. Many young workers may need to move to stay employed and are wary of being tied to a house they may not be able to sell. Hence, more young families are opting to rent.

The new emphasis on smaller, better-located homes and renting are instigating construction closer to cities and redevelopment, and multifamily dwellings. Hence, economists expect housing starts to increase 8% or 10% a year.

With consumer spending and construction showing more bounce, it may not be time to break out the champagne. Good jobs may be more plentiful but still not sufficiently abundant. However, the economy seems to be performing better. Also, manufacturing has been the bright star of the recent recovery.

Europe is entering a long recession, China is pulling out all the protectionist corks to stave off slower growth, and both trends will slow U.S. exports and worsen the trade deficit. Ditto for rising oil prices.

However, U.S. growth appears to be much more independent, resilient and robust than expected during much of 2011 when the flash crash, earthquake in Japan and Europe's financial woes had policymakers pixilated and casting blame on events beyond their control.

On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve releases January industrial production, which was lackluster in the fourth quarter, but for strong performance in mining -- which includes all those onshore energy projects -- and manufacturing.

Economists expect that pace to pick up, but watch in particular the manufacturing sector. Repeated strong gains are needed to confirm that insourcing is taking hold, albeit gradually, and American firms are finding enough creative ways to produce more domestically and fire up growth significantly.

This week watch retail sales, housing starts and industrial production. They will tell much about whether the economy is finally moving into second gear.

Readers Also Like:

Professor Peter Morici, of the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, is a recognized expert on economic policy and international economics. Prior to joining the university, he served as director of the Office of Economics at the U.S. International Trade Commission. He is the author of 18 books and monographs and has published widely in leading public policy and business journals, including the Harvard Business Review and Foreign Policy. Morici has lectured and offered executive programs at more than 100 institutions, including Columbia University, the Harvard Business School and Oxford University. His views are frequently featured on CNN, CBS, BBC, FOX, ABC, CNBC, NPR, NPB and national broadcast networks around the world.

More from Opinion

Apple Needs to Figure Out Its Self-Driving Vehicle Strategy

Apple Needs to Figure Out Its Self-Driving Vehicle Strategy

Throwback Thursday: Tesla, Chip Stocks, TheStreet's Picks

Throwback Thursday: Tesla, Chip Stocks, TheStreet's Picks

12 Stocks That Our Writers and Their Sources Recommend You Buy Here

12 Stocks That Our Writers and Their Sources Recommend You Buy Here

Musk Goes on Unoriginal Media Tirade

Musk Goes on Unoriginal Media Tirade

What's Happening in Video Games This Week: On the Road to E3

What's Happening in Video Games This Week: On the Road to E3