The divide was highlighted in Wednesday’s statement from the Federal Reserve’s policy committee, which concluded a two-day meeting. “Household spending has advanced a bit more quickly,” the committee said in describing the economy in recent weeks, while “growth in business fixed investment has slowed.”
But let’s back up. Why is this divide happening? What can account for such drastically different impressions of what is going on between the living room and the boardroom? There are five answers that seem most plausible, though none is entirely satisfactory on its own.
Staring over the cliff
Corporate executives are deeply attuned to what might happen if Congress and the White House cannot agree on taxes and spending by the end of the year: dramatic and immediate tax increases and spending cuts.
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. It seems a safe bet that ordinary people are spending less time sweating the sequester or panicking over the payroll holiday.
Some companies have responded more concretely to the threat of financial turbulence. General Electric has issued $7 billion in bonds, essentially getting ahead of the curve by refinancing $5 billion that matures in February and raising more cash on top of that.
“We issued it in October so we don’t have to worry about what happens if the fiscal cliff is not resolved,” GE’s chief financial officer, Keith Sherin, told the Financial Times. “If it’s choppy, we are prepared.”
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. The 1.5 percent or so growth the United States seems to be experiencing is better than the recessionary environment in Europe. And Chinese markets are growing well below the breakneck pace companies had become accustomed to.
The weakness in Europe was underscored Wednesday with a report that Germany’s powerhouse manufacturing sector is contracting. A survey of purchasing managers by Markit Economics showed a surprising drop in an index of business activity, to 45.7 this month (numbers below 50 indicate contraction). By contrast, the most recent survey of purchasing managers at U.S. manufacturers, which uses the same scale, came in at 51.5, showing expansion.