I tend to view the data as being modestly optimistic in that it has generally surprised on the upside of late, enough to drive away fears that the slow patch this summer would evolve into a recession in the near future. Still, the data has not been sufficiently optimistic to sway me from my general view that underlying growth continues to be slow and steady.
For example, I would like to see initial unemployment claims make another push lower to cement a stronger outlook:
That said, I remain unsettled by the core manufacturing data, which I would say is clearly in recession territory:
I think this is the scariest near-term indicator at the moment. Of course, one piece of data in no way makes a recession. I attribute the decline to three factors. First, expiring tax credits pulled some investment into 2011. Second, the drag from international weakness. Third, uncertainty about the extent of fiscal tightening in 2013. At least the second, and probably the third, of these three factors is weighing on earnings growth, which in turn has brought the bull market in equities to at least a pause. From Neil Irwin at the Washington Post:
The CEO mindset on the fiscal cliff has been evident in a spate of third-quarter earnings announcements in the past two weeks. Almost uniformly, company executives discuss the looming threat to the economy, usually offering only vague comments that it has been a drag on their confidence and that they don’t know exactly what a resolution would look like....
...Some of the gloomiest assessments of economic conditions have come from companies that do extensive business overseas. By many accounts, as troubled as the U.S. economy has been in recent months, it looks better than many of its counterparts.
Yes, sad as it seems, across the globe the U.S. is a bright spot at the moment.
Bottom Line: The core manufacturing data stands out as an aberration. While arguably a recessionary indicator, it also comes at a time of an improving housing market. It would be unusual, to say the least, to experience a recession when housing is trending up. Moreover, I remain skeptical that trade channels are sufficient to trip the economy into recession. Still, I can't discount the recession threat entirely; to do so would be ludicrous in the face of the looming fiscal cliff. On average, Congress and the Administration have tended to limp things along, and hence the median bet should be that they will continue to do so. But all bets wear thin after a while. Assuming monetary policy remains on hold (which it will), the degree of fiscal austerity in 2013 remains my chief concern.