And now for something NOT about the euro: Good news for U.S. growth in today's inventory numbers

02/09/2010 1:44 pm EST

Focus: STOCKS

Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor, JubakPicks.com

And now for a break from the euro and today’s “They will bail out Greece/They won’t bail out Greece” rumor fest.

Real news on the U.S. economy and it’s very good news indeed.

Inventories at U.S. wholesalers dropped in December, according to data released this morning by the Commerce Department. (Guess somebody made it in through the snow down there.)

Fell unexpectedly. Economists were expecting that inventories would climb in December.

And fell big. A 0.8% decrease in inventories after inventories unexpectedly climbed in November by 1.6%. That November increase was the largest since July 2004. And raised doubts about the sustainability and strength of the U.S. economic recovery.

So why are these inventory numbers so important and such positive news?

In the early stages of a strong economic recovery companies should be having trouble keeping inventory on shelves and in warehouses. Demand should be picking up so fast that it surprises companies that have hunkered down for the recession. With recession-thinned staffs and reduced hours at many plants, suppliers should be having difficulty at this stage of a recovery in filling orders.

The decline in inventories in December looks like exactly the kind of drawdown in inventories that the economy should be seeing right now.

The November increase in inventories, on the other hand, raised the question of whether companies that had sold down their initial stock of goods on hand and then reordered weren’t seeing demand pick up as much as they had projected. That increased the odds that sales might not be accelerating very quickly and that in December the inventory numbers would start to show a pile up of unsold goods.

That’s precisely the fear that the consensus among economists reflected: The median forecast among 31 economist surveyed by Bloomberg, called for a 0.5% increase in inventories in December.

Inventory levels are now just 1.12 months of sales. That’s the lowest level since a record low of 1.11 in June 2008.

The U.S. economy grew at a 5.7% annual rate in the fourth quarter of 2009. The inventory numbers from wholesalers increase the chances that U.S. economic growth for 2010 will come in ahead of the 2.7% that’s the consensus forecast right now.

Of course, since there’s no silver lining without a cloud, stronger than expected economic growth will set the financial markets fretting again about when the Federal Reserve will start to raise interest rates.

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