NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Obviously, it's great news that the economy grew at a 5.0% annual rate in the third quarter -- the best in 10 years! But what was so great about it? And can it last? Can it make you money in 2015?
The answers to the last two are yes, and probably. Here's why.
The best things about the report also answer the question of whether the surge can last, independent economist Joel Naroff says.The consumer cavalry is here. Consumer spending grew at a 3.2% rate, almost twice the rate of the first six months of the year. The best part was that growth in spending on consumer services is much better, up 2.5% yearly for the quarter. This means the consumer-spending expansion is now moving out of just buying cars and other worn-out durable goods, filling a gap in the recovery that Naroff has harped on for nearly two years. Most of the gain in services spending went for financial services (see JPMorgan Chase ( JPM) ) and more health care spending at companies like HCA ( HCA) and UnitedHealth Group ( UNH) . That health care number will bear watching, since health care cost containment is a big part of the economy's bull story, the Brookings Institution's David Wessel pointed out on Twitter.
"It puts 2015 GDP growth at 3.5% or greater," Naroff said. "Low energy costs could push it close to 4%."
Exports were down -- showing that the slowing growth in Europe and Asia that worried the markets is accounted for. That suggests that these subtractions from growth shouldn't get much bigger in the fourth quarter. Also, there was no boost from inventory buildup by businesses, which can be an economic sugar high if no one buys the goods. Instead, the final demand number was the same robust 5.0% as the headline number.
The benefits of the oil bust began to show up, but there's lots more to come. Imports actually added to growth in the quarter for the first time since early 2013. Since consumers aren't buying fewer cars, clothing or electronics, but are buying less gasoline, do the math. The price of oil has dropped near $40 a barrel since the fourth quarter began. Bad for ExxonMobil, maybe, but apparently good for consumer plays from Wal-Mart (WMT) to Amazon.com (AMZN) .
"Consumers spent strongly even before getting the boost from lower gasoline prices," Moody's Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi said in an email.
"Trade and inventories will be a drag this quarter, but confident consumers and businesses will ensure 2015 will be a very good year for the economy."
So what are the words of caution? Two come to mind right away.
First, Bank of America Merrill Lynch strategist Savita Subramanian and others point out that consumer-cyclical stocks have outperformed the market, and many experts (including her) think that won't last. The obvious impulse after a report like this is to rush out and buy retail stocks. But it may not be the right one.
The second risk, Naroff says, is that really good news like this could prompt the Federal Reserve to begin raising interest rates sooner than expected if it continued through the end of the year and into the first quarter. "The Fed is behind the curve,'' he said.
But those are a higher class of problem than U.S. investors have faced in recent years. The U.S. economy has now grown at a 3.5% rate or better for four of the last five quarters, except during last winter's arctic-weather induced slump. And the recent history of the market is that equities don't overreact to Fed tightening in improving economies. As Zandi said this morning, the real headline today is that "the economy has finally pulled away from the dark pull of the Great Recession.''