Is America's Economy Shooting Blanks?

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Includes: RINF
by: Danielle DiMartino Booth

It always helps to make a good first impression, especially to the father of the girl you'd like to date. An impressive resume can do the trick. That was certainly the case in the 1997 dark humor classic Grosse Pointe Blank. If you don't happen to recall the exchange between John Cusack's character, Martin Q. Blank, and the father of the girl he wanted to date, here's a refresher:

Mr. Newberry: "What have you been doing with your life?"

Martin: "Uh... professional killer."

Mr. Newberry: "Oh! Good for you, it's a... growth industry."

If only our economy had more growth industries. We've just learned that the economy grew by 1.4 percent in the final three months of last year. The sad thing is that's a vast improvement over the last figure we had in hand of 1.0 percent. For the full year, the economy grew at a 2.4 percent rate, the same paltry pace it has since the recession ended in 2009.

As for the sole source of support of late? That would be the U.S. consumer, without whom, math tells us, the entire world economy would be in recession, not just the United States. In the fourth quarter, in particular, spending was buoyed by gains in Transportation and Recreational services.

Sound familiar? It should.

Cars have literally been driving the U.S. economy in the aftermath of the collapse in the energy industry, which took high-paying jobs down with it. To be specific, car sales to marginal buyers who cannot afford the payment for very long have pushed the sales to record levels.

If you're hoping this economic prop is sustainable - and you should be, given the alternative - you're apt to be disappointed. A recent Bloomberg story shed light on how sales have been turbocharged. As was the case with subprime mortgage lending, which pushed homeownership to record levels, new car financing entrants have been responsible for record car sales.

According to J.P. Morgan Chase calculations, among subprime lenders that tap the securitization market to in turn finance their operations, new entrants now account for 28 percent of the business, multiples of the single-digit market share they had between 2011 and 2013. That makes these corporate whippersnappers the biggest players in the market. Their secret weapon? That would be ridiculously lax underwriting standards to qualify unqualified buyers.

As was the case with subprime mortgages, it's a great growth industry. That is, until it's not. Investors keeping the lights on at these companies have apparently started to balk at the number of loans backing the securities they're supposed to be lining up to buy going sour. According to Fitch Ratings, subprime delinquencies of 60 days or more hit 5.16 percent in February, a stone's throw from the previous record of 5.96 percent in October 1996.

So you tell me. Can the pace of car sales that have been juicing U.S. consumer spending that's supporting the world economy be sustained?

The answer would be "yes" if Corporate America were about to go on a hiring spree. The chances of that happening, though, are nil to none considering the latest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) data also revealed 2015 corporate profits dropping by the most since 2008, when the economy was veering into recession.

As for what's to come, the February durable goods suggests more of the same, as in decelerating economic activity. Aside from being a mouthful, nondefense capital goods excluding aircraft orders feed into the GDP calculation. In February, these so-called "core capital goods" orders fell by 1.8 percent, capping a declining trend that's been underway since the fall of 2014. Since peaking for the current cycle in September 2014, core capital goods have fallen by 9.0 percent.

And yet, we continue to rack up job gains: over the past six months, the economy has churned out 235,000 of them, on average. So, it's apparently more of the dichotomous same - jobs up, economic growth down.

Morgan Stanley's Ted Wieseman does a bang-up job of summing up this frustrating dynamic. "The jobs/GDP disparity results from the God-awful productivity record of the past five years," Wieseman noted. Over that period, productivity has limped upwards at a 0.4 percent annualized rate.

"The only other five-year period that's ever been worse was that through mid-1982, which included two recessions and the peak of the Great Inflation."

In other words, the U.S. economy is desperately lacking in growth industries and will continue shooting blanks until that changes.