Three Reasons Why 2010's Economy Looks Iffy

12/04/2009 9:21 am EST

Focus: MARKETS

Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor, JubakPicks.com

Signs of a recovery look promising in manufacturing, auto sales, real estate, and other key sectors. But problems remain, and you should start protecting your portfolio now.

The economy is looking increasingly dicey for 2010.

Oh, things are OK now. The most recent numbers are, in fact, reassuring. The United States seems to be on track for something like 3% economic growth in the fourth quarter. That would be a slight acceleration from the 2.8% growth (as revised) in the third quarter. And it would put the economy on track for the kind of decent, but not great, recovery in 2010 that most investors and economists are expecting.

But recent numbers suggest that instead of accelerating off that fourth-quarter growth, the economy might be headed for a slowdown in 2010. Not all the way back to negative numbers, but definitely a deceleration at a time when just about every stock is priced for acceleration in revenue and earnings.

There's nothing certain in these numbers. And I'm sure some of you will add them up differently. But let me give you the evidence that growth, rather than picking up, is going to start sputtering in 2010.

So far, the numbers look pretty good for the fourth quarter.

Manufacturing continues to expand, according to the Institute for Supply Management survey. Yes, manufacturing activity dipped to a reading of 53.6 in November. That was lower than economists' consensus forecast of 55 and down from the 55.7 mark for October. But anything above 50 shows that the manufacturing sector is expanding. November marked the fourth consecutive month the index came in above 50.

November auto industry sales also strengthened, climbing to an annual rate of 11 million units in the United States. That's up from an annual rate of 10.5 million in October and 9.2 million in September. In a November 5 post, I wrote "October is the first month since December 2008 to see the annualized rate of sales top 10 million units—without the push of a government subsidy."

And now, November has come in at an 11 million annual rate—again without subsidies. In the month, General Motors reported that sales ran 6.3% above those of November 2008. Ford was flat with November 2008 but picked up market share for the 13th time in the past 14 months. (Chrysler Group was the big loser, with sales down 25%.)

There were even promising signs out of the residential real estate sector. Released December 1, the National Association of Realtors' October index of pending home sales was up 3.7% from October 2008. The index measures the number of new signed contracts for purchases.

If the data look that good for November, why am I worried about 2010? Three reasons:

Worry Number One: No Steam in the Stimulus

Anecdotal evidence—which is often less reliable than official surveys, but runs ahead of the official surveys—shows signs that the economic stimulus from last February is (1) Wearing off sooner than expected in some sectors of the economy, and (2) Was indeed, as some of us worried at the time, too small to stem the rise in unemployment.

In the construction industry, for example, anecdotal evidence gathered by The Wall Street Journal strongly suggests that highway construction companies have just about completed the small projects funded by the February stimulus package. Even with the stimulus work, unemployment in the construction industry had climbed to 19.1% in October from 10.7% in October 2008. In the transportation and material-moving sector, unemployment stood at 11.6% in October, up from 7.9% in October 2008.

The stimulus bill provided only $28 billion (out of $787 billion) for highway construction. And while stimulus money for bigger projects is still working its way into the economy, that $28 billion was spent largely on smaller, "shovel-ready" work that has just about been completed.

A recently completed survey by the Associated General Contractors of America indicated that 44% of contractors expect to lay off workers this year.

The hope was that the stimulus package would be enough to get the economy back on a self-sustaining growth path. That hasn't happened yet. At least not in this sector.

Worry Number Two: A Lack of Confidence

Deeper analysis of some of the positive data from November reveals just how hesitant the recovery is.

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Take a closer look at the manufacturing survey, for example. There's no sign yet that manufacturers are willing to bet on the economic recovery and build products before they have orders. An analysis by Briefing.com showed production falling slightly, even as manufacturing continued to expand, in response to a drop in new orders in October. Orders picked up again in November, but the production numbers didn't. I'd expect to see the production numbers climb again in December in response to that increase in orders.

This manufacturing to orders is also reflected in inventory numbers that show that no one is willing to build inventories in anticipation of future orders and sales. When orders fall, manufacturers cut production rather than keeping machines running and building inventory.

While it is a big positive that manufacturing is expanding, these numbers show that confidence is still extremely fragile.

Worry Number Three: Sad States

This wouldn't concern me so much, except for the fact that the economy will get a big kick in the teeth in 2010 from state budget cuts. In this November 10 post, I wrote that estimates for budget shortfalls at the state level come to $145 billion to $178 billion in the fiscal year that ends next June. Budget gaps like that, on top of already drastic spending cuts in 2008 and 2009, will produce deep cutbacks in spending on everything from road and school construction to employment of police, firefighters, teachers, and state park workers. The same survey that showed 44% of contractors anticipating layoffs in 2010 also showed that 76% expect state transportation departments to put less work out for bid in 2010 than in 2009.

This week, the Obama administration was holding a jobs summit. But I don't expect anything of substance to come out of it—or at least nothing that would require new spending. The economy might need a second stimulus package—I think the need is absolutely clear—but the political mood has shifted so that, with elections looming in November, I don't expect any politician to recommend anything more expensive than an extension of unemployment benefits. And maybe, just maybe, there will be a transfer of some unspent bailout money to transportation spending or something like the home-weatherization program that's been dubbed “Cash for Caulkers.”

Timing Your Market Exit

So what do you, as an investor, do now?

In this October 14 post on how to worry and when, I said I thought it would take until we had disappointing first quarter gross domestic product numbers in April or so before the fundamentals of this economy start to take a bite out of stocks. That still seems about right.

That gives you plenty of time to reduce the risk in your portfolio. But the time to take these steps is now, when the market is still climbing. They get a lot harder to execute when stocks are falling. Then the inclination is to hold on in the hope that you can ride out the turmoil.
 
I think you ride the current rally—based as it is on a falling US dollar and not on economic fundamentals—for another couple of months. But do it very, very carefully. It's time to think about taking profits by selling partial positions or by selling all of your position in a stock that has gone from rising gradually to rising like a rocket.

If you know how to use stop-loss orders to protect yourself in a downturn, this is a good time to make sure you've placed formal stop orders with your broker or set imaginary stop-loss limits that trigger a sell order if a stock falls to your stop price.

It's also a good time to make sure your portfolio isn't more volatile than you'd like. Fortunately, large-capitalization, relatively low-volatility stocks have been in favor lately. That makes it easier to sell a high-beta stock and buy a McDonald's or a PepsiCo.

(If you have questions about what any of these terms mean or the details of any of these strategies, ask in the comments section of this article on my blog, JubakPicks.com. I'll try to fill in some of the details—if some reader doesn't beat me to it.)

I don't think you have to sell everything or rush to the exit immediately. We're not looking at the end of the world. A falling dollar will continue to support stocks for a while yet. And even if my fears come true, I don't think we're looking at a double dip that will take us back into a recession.

I just think growth is going to be disappointing—if still positive—in 2010. And that's something that isn't factored into stock prices that have been climbing since March.

At the time of publication, Jim Jubak did not own or control shares of any company mentioned in this column.

Jim Jubak has been writing "Jubak's Journal" and tracking the performance of his market-beating Jubak's Picks portfolio since 1997 on MSN Money. He is the author of a new book, The Jubak Picks, and he writes the Jubak Picks blog. He is also the senior markets editor at MoneyShow.com.

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