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Trigaux: Despite a few hiccups, economy is humming on most cylinders

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon discusses his annual letter to the bank's shareholders on April 4 in Washington, DC. In the letter, he states "something is wrong" with the United States. [Courtesy JPMorgan Chase]
Published Apr. 7, 2017

With a few very pointed exceptions, the U.S. economy continues to radiate momentum.

The stock market's rapid rise in recent months has stunned and delighted investors. Corporate profits are setting recent records, as are the stock prices of more than a few Tampa Bay area companies. Friday's March job report, less than stellar after boffo hiring numbers in January and February, may turn out to be a pause rather than a trend. Even so, the nation's unemployment rate still dropped to 4.5 percent, the lowest it has been in nearly ten years.

Small business and consumer confidence? Both are knocking their charts out of the park.

It's hardly a reach to say the economy is humming on almost all cylinders. Still, no economic era is perfect and this one certainly has some pernicious problems.

It isn't every day that the CEO of the nation's biggest banking company, JPMorgan Chase's Jamie Dimon, states "The United States of America is truly an exceptional country" only to then warn: "it is clear that something is wrong."

Dimon's comments appear in, yes, a 45-page letter to shareholders of the $2.5 trillion-asset bank, so he obviously has a lot to get off his chest. Here's just a piece of it:

"Since the turn of the century, the U.S. has dumped trillions of dollars into wars, piled huge debt onto students, forced legions of foreigners to leave after getting advanced degrees, driven millions of Americans out of the workplace with felonies for sometimes minor offenses and hobbled the housing market with hastily crafted layers of rules."

With a nod to Charles Dickens, it seems the country's enjoying the best and worst of times.

So let's cut to the chase. Is this bullish economy just a warm-up to lasting growth and spreading prosperity? Or is this really more of a wishful economy, jumping ahead of reality in the hope President Donald Trump can indeed deliver on his promises of sharply lower taxes, smaller government, less regulation, better trade deals and a promised $1 trillion infrastructure investment?

It's complicated, I know. So let's break down at least some of the major drivers of the current economy. Let's see what's making so many of us so confident. And, of course, what could go wrong?

***

A hiccup in job gains but lowest jobless rate since 2007

Given its timeliness, it's easy to fixate on Friday's weaker jobs reports. For the month of March, only 98,000 jobs were added in the country. But job growth averaged 178,000 per month in the first quarter, testimony to a strong national labor market despite last month's stumble. Florida's jobless rate in February, the latest month that numbers are available, was flat at 5 percent. Uncharacteristically, the state lost 5,000 jobs that month, though it added 248,000 in the past year — second in size only to California's 315,800. Florida also lead the nation in construction jobs in the past year, adding 30,000.

In Tampa Bay, February unemployment was 4.5 percent with 36,100 jobs added in the past year, making this metro area the third largest jobs machine over the past 12 months behind the Miami and Orlando metros.

What could go wrong? With unemployment rates low, it will be harder to create new jobs and find the skilled people to fill those positions. That should put more pressure on wages since, to fill a new job, it will require luring more workers already employed to leave their current employment — presumably for better pay.

One job sector that feels especially vulnerable to more cuts? Retail. Major chains are downsizing and many more — witness Payless ShoeSource this past week — are seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. At the same time, online shopping giant Amazon announced it will add more than 30,000 part-time jobs over the next year, including thousands of work-from-home jobs.

It's not just retail that's ailing.

In Tampa Bay, one veteran headhunter in the tech industry, says he's seeing a "steady stream" of layoffs and reorganizations among larger enterprises. Tech hiring at smaller firms and startups remains solid, says Fritz Eichelberger, CEO at the search firm Hotspaces.net.

What's hurting tech? Eichelberger sees companies who are stalling on hires because of the current instability over health care coverage, because companies are thinning tech management ranks, because more IT jobs are being outsourced overseas, and because the recent rise of mergers and acquisitions has increased the likelihood of two tech departments becoming one.

***

Against the odds, stocks and public confidence soar

The three major U.S. indexes posted quarterly gains in the first quarter of at least 4.6 percent. The Nasdaq also recorded its best quarterly performance since 2013 as tech stocks rose more than 12 percent in the period. The S&P 500 is up about 11 percent since Nov. 8, Election Day.

Small wonder that confidence is soaring. In Florida, consumer sentiment rose in March to the highest level in 15 years, according to the latest University of Florida consumer survey. "In general, the economic outlook is very positive, and the positive sentiment will aid the economy to expand even further," says Hector H. Sandoval, director of UF's Economic Analysis Program,

Wells Fargo economist Mark Vitner, a veteran observer of Florida's business scene, recently pointed to the very upbeat feedback his bank got in its first quarter small business survey.

"The improvement in small business confidence furthers a string of gains in various confidence surveys since the presidential election, including corporate CEOs, manufacturers, service providers and homebuilders," says Vitner. The latest Wells Fargo/Gallup Small Business Index, conducted in February, has risen 32 points since the presidential election and is now at its highest level since July 2007.

What's driving such euphoria? For small business, it is the prospect that burdensome government regulations will be eased in the coming years of a Trump administration with a Republican-controlled Congress.

What could go wrong? What consumers and small businesses wish for simply may not happen. The Federal Reserve is worried the market is overheated and could raise interest rates more quickly than expected to temper investing expectations and make the cost of borrowing money more expensive.

The CEO of BlackRock, the world's largest investor with $5.1 trillion, also sounded an alarm over the US stock market. Commenting on CNBC, Larry Fink said the high stock prices did not match up with conditions in the economy and market. "If we don't see a true deregulation, I think the markets would have some setbacks there," he said. Fink also said the U.S. economy was slowing down and would probably grow by less than 1.5 percent, making it the slowest economy among the G-7 countries.

One other warning flag: Cars. The were selling like hotcakes in 2016. Now they are getting tough to move, even with incentives. How bad is it? The number of unsold autos would last 3.16 months at the February sales rate. That's the highest inventory during any economic expansion in 28 years.

***

Corporate profits are booming

With the first quarter wrapped up in March, U.S. companies are poised to report their strongest quarterly earnings in years. That's good news on the job front and a better indicator that stock-market rally still has legs.

Citing data from FactSet, analysts expect earnings for S&P 500 companies to grow by 9.1 percent overall in the first quarter from a year earlier That would mark the highest growth since the fourth quarter of 2011, according to the Wall Street Journal. The gung-ho outlook assumes Trump and Congress will deliver tax and regulation cuts.

In the Tampa Bay area, such companies as Tech Data, Jabil, WellCare Health Plans, Publix, Raymond James Financial and BlueGrace Logistics are among the fast growing firms enjoying strong quarters and high stock prices.

What could go wrong? A Trump administration failure to deliver pro-business changes. Stocks tied to infrastructure and tax reform already are stalling as the president struggles to press his agenda in Washington. Both North Korea and Syria could become serious problems, distracting the country from economic matters.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.

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