Putting the bad numbers into context

Headlines depict the economic crisis

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: In the spirit of the season gone by, I wish we had happier things to tell you. Nobody likes to start a new year playing economic catch-up. But here we are. I'll give you a quick rundown of the numbers du jour, then Bob Moon's going to take it from there.

Item one is factories. The Commerce Department said today orders to American factories fell for a record fourth straight month in November. And then, this afternoon, right on cue, Alcoa, the aluminum maker, said it's going to cut more than 13,000 jobs.

Item two is housing, so you know this won't be good. The National Association of Realtors reported today pending home sales have dropped to their lowest on record. Remember, that's from the industry's lobbying group, not an organization prone to negative spin.

There was a bright spot amid the gloom. A trade group said there were some new orders and an improved employment picture for the services sector, which accounts for a huge chunk of the economy. So with all that as prologue, here's Bob:


Bob Moon: Today's numbers seem to take us two more steps back, but one little step forward. While manufacturing and housing declined again, some economists saw hope in an unexpectedly upbeat reading from the Institute for Supply Management. Its index of activity in the service sector actually rose, and that's where most Americans have their jobs. But economist Joel Naroff found that only slightly encouraging.

Joel Naroff: The ISM number wasn't necessarily a sign that things are getting better, it just means that the economy's not crashing and burning as rapidly as it had been.

Still, Naroff says you have to stop falling before you can get back up. And at Principal Global Investors, economist Bob Baur agrees.

Bob Baur: You don't just go from all bad data to all positive data, so we view that it's a positive to move to where the data's at least mixed.

Others aren't so optimistic. Barry Ritholtz is director of equity research at Fusion IQ. He cautions against focusing too much on a single month, just because it's the most recent.

Barry Ritholtz: You'll get all excited about last month's data, because it was a little better than expected.

Ritholtz also discounts the stock market's spin on the news.

Ritholtz: I don't think the economists on Wall Street have done investors much of a favor by implying that things are, you know, all sugar and spice, when it's not.

Still, economist Bob Baur argues that Wall Street's reaction is at least a welcome change.

Baur: We wouldn't expect this is the beginning of a bull market, but at least having the stock market no longer crash every time there's some bad economic data is positive news.

Remember though, as the fine print often cautions, Wall Street's current performance is no guarantee of future results.

I'm Bob Moon for Marketplace.

About the author

Bob Moon is Marketplace’s senior business correspondent, based in Los Angeles.

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