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Op-Ed: Steady but slow progress for the economy

The US economy expanded at a faster pace in the third quarter than previously reported. Gross domestic product rose at a 2.1 percent annualized rate, up from an initial estimate of 1.5 percent. Nearly all of the improvement was because of revised data on inventories, which showed businesses restocking shelves at a faster pace than the government first estimated.

Still, company stockpiles remained elevated compared with sales, indicating that new orders and production will cool further to clear shelves and warehouses heading into 2016. Inventories grew at a $90 billion annualized rate from July through September, almost twice as much as previously estimated, but down from the second quarter.

The improvement in inventory levels was offset by a slight downward revision in consumer spending last quarter. Cheap gasoline is giving households a little extra money, and consumers are spending, just not quite as fast; consumer spending was revised down to 3 percent from 3.2 percent in the initial estimate for the third quarter. Consumption during the current fourth quarter, including the holiday shopping season, is expected to increase at an annualized rate of about 3 percent.

For all of 2015, the rate of economic growth is expected to be about 2.5 percent, not much different from the 2.4 percent rate in 2014. Not great but good enough. The GDP report was the one of the last big economic reports before the Fed FOMC meeting December 16th; the other big report will be the November jobs report, which will be published on Friday, December 4th. In reality, not much has changed since June or even October, when the Fed did not raise rates.

Corporate profits after tax, without inventory valuation and capital consumption adjustments, fell at a 3.2 percent pace from the second quarter, the biggest drop since the fourth quarter of 2014. On a year-over-year basis, corporate profit growth was 1.4 percent, compared with 8.5 percent year over year growth in the second quarter. That measure of corporate profits tracks most closely with what companies report in earnings statements. Profit data aren’t inflation adjusted.

The Conference Board reports that its index for consumer confidence fell to 90.4 from 99.1 in October. Despite a strong advance in hiring last month, consumers expressed more caution about the job market and future economic conditions in the most recent survey. The fall is in the expectations, not the current conditions, component. The decline in job expectations is dramatic and raises the question whether global effects, which have been negative for the US, are beginning to weigh on the American consumer, which would not be a positive for the holiday spending outlook.

Existing home prices rose in September. The S&P/Case-Shiller 20-city composite index gained 0.2percent. Prices rose 5.5 percent for the year, up from a 5.1 percent yearly gain in August. The index is still about 12 percent lower than its 2006 peak. Phoenix home prices were up 0.2 percent in September, and up 5.3 percent over the past 12 months.

At the peak, prices in Phoenix were 127 percent above the January 2000 level. Then prices in Phoenix fell slightly below the January 2000 level, and are now up 54 percent above January 2000 (54 percent nominal gain in almost 16 years).

These are nominal prices, and real prices (adjusted for inflation) are up about 40 percent since January 2000 – so the increase in Phoenix from January 2000 until now is about 14 percent above the change in overall prices due to inflation.

Turkey has shot down a Russian military jet near the Syrian border. Turkish officials said the jet was downed after it knowingly violated Turkish airspace. The two Russian pilots ejected before the plane crashed but they were shot in their parachutes as they floated to earth. And then Turkish tribesmen reportedly destroyed a Russian helicopter with a TOW antitank missile as it tried to rescue the airmen. The Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed that one fighter pilot had been killed by ground fire and that a marine deployed on the search-and-rescue helicopter died but that the rest of the crew had managed to escape.

Russia’s retaliation so far has been largely symbolic. Russia’s foreign minister canceled a Wednesday visit to Turkey, and a large Russian tour operator announced it was suspending sales to Turkey. The two countries are also significant trade partners, or at least they were. A reminder that Turkey is a member of NATO. Today, French president Francois Hollande was in Washington and conducted a joint press conference with President Obama. They vowed to intensify their nations’ military attacks on ISIS in Syria and Iraq. They also announced that next week’s climate change summit in Paris would be a “powerful rebuke” to terrorists.

In the immediate aftermath markets reacted nervously, with the lira selling off, Russian stocks sliding and global government bonds climbing as investors move to safe havens. Meanwhile, a car bomb exploded outside a hotel housing judges supervising parliamentary elections in Egypt’s North Sinai, killing at least three people and injuring 14. The region is the main area of operations for the Egyptian affiliate of ISIS.

Citing “increased terrorist threats” from militant groups in various regions of the world, the US State Department has issued a global travel alert ahead of a busy Thanksgiving week. The department did not advise people against travel but said US citizens should be vigilant, especially in crowded places. The announcement comes as Brussels remains on lockdown and follows the discovery of an explosive belt near Paris and the mobile phone of a fugitive believed to have taken part in the November 13 attacks.

Ford is the latest automaker to say it will not equip future cars with Takata air bag inflators that use ammonium nitrate, the chemical propellant that has been linked to eight deaths and more than 100 injuries worldwide. Ford’s auto recalls with Takata airbags have so far affected about 1.5 million vehicles, including certain older model-year Ford Mustangs, Ford GTs and North American-built Ford Rangers.

Costco has an E. Coli problem. Nineteen people have been infected with E. coli in California, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Utah, Virginia, and Washington. They have tracked the source to Costco’s rotisserie chicken salad. You might want to stick with turkey for the next few days.

Skyworks Solutions has withdrawn its agreed takeover bid for PMC-Sierra after an increased offer of $2.3 billion from Microsemi gained the backing of the target’s board. Skyworks said it won’t modify its bid and that the company is entitled to an $88 million termination fee from PMC. Semiconductor makers have pursued mergers at a record pace this year.

China’s securities regulator has canceled a requirement that brokerages must hold a net positive purchase position on daily proprietary trading as the nation’s stock market stabilizes following a summer slump. With the Shanghai Composite now having gained more than 20 percent from its August low, regulators are withdrawing from a government campaign to prop up shares.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is clamping down on “spoofing,” issuing subpoenas to interdealer brokers BGC Partners, TFS-ICAP, GFI Group, and Tullett Prebon Financial Services. The investigation is focused on placing offers with the intent to cancel them before they trade in order to trick other investors by creating the illusion of demand. Earlier this month, high-frequency trader Michael Coscia became the first person to be found guilty of spoofing in a criminal case.

National Football League player Dwight Freeney can proceed with his lawsuit alleging that Bank of America was complicit in a fraud scheme that caused him to lose more than $20 million and forced his Rolling Stone restaurant to close. The Arizona Cardinals linebacker last Thursday defeated a bid by the parent company and its Merrill Lynch unit to dismiss, among others, fraud and negligent misrepresentation claims stemming from the bank’s recruitment of him in 2010 to manage his assets. US District Judge Margaret Morrow in Los Angeles didn’t rule on the merits of Mr. Freeney’s claims but agreed that he alleged enough facts to move forward with the case.

Just in time for the busiest shopping week of the year – iSight Partners, a privately held cyber intelligence firm is warning retailers about what they call “the most sophisticated point-of-sale malware seen to date.” The firm had shared information about the malware, dubbed ModPOS, with clients in October, and briefed dozens of companies about its dangers. Some retailers have found digital evidence that linked threat indicators they had previously seen to ModPOS, though that does not necessarily mean they were victims of breaches. Just a reminder that if you are concerned about cyber security while holiday shopping, cash still works.

CalPERS, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System said it paid $3.4 billion in performance fees to its private equity managers since 1990 while the controversial sector generated $24.2 billion in profits for retirees. CalPERS has been hard-pressed to keep up with looming obligations to its 1.7 million current and future retirees.

The CalPERS fund, the largest pension fund in the country now at about $295 billion, is considered about 74percent funded, down from 77 percent as of June 30, 2014, mostly because of weak performance from its global stock portfolio. The global stock portfolio posted returns of 1 percent for the last fiscal year, ended June 30. Private equity, by contrast, returned 8.9 percent for the year but not without risk and hefty fees.

Jeff Bezos’s space exploration company Blue Origin achieved a key milestone: sending a rocket into space and then landing it safely back on Earth. Making reusable rockets is a central goal for a generation of companies that are trying to cut the cost of space travel and exploration. A Blue Origin vehicle called New Shepard flew to space on Monday, reaching an altitude of 100 kilometers, and then landed back at its launch site.

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