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Retail Therapy For Investors

Europe’s debt crisis dragged on, Washington’s budget remained a mess and the Indianapolis Colts were still winless on Monday morning – yet stock markets roared ahead around the globe. So what happened?

Often, my answer to that question would be “nothing.” Markets move every day. As my colleague Jonathan Bergman observed in this space recently, big moves happen more frequently nowadays than they used to. Share prices took a drubbing this month, and the principle of the “dead cat bounce” still applies, so a brief rebound might mean nothing whatsoever.

I suspect, however, that was not the case yesterday. I think the weekend’s news about big crowds of Black Friday shoppers reminded people that life goes on, even amid a world-wide financial pullback that is approaching the five-year mark.

It might be an overstatement to say that American shoppers partied like it was 2006, but they clearly shed some of their recession-era mindset as they took out their credit cards and cranked up their internet connections for the holiday retail jamboree.

Nobody knows whether the comparatively brisk sales pace will continue through Christmas Eve, but there are some clear signs that the U.S. economy is trying to revive itself despite political gridlock and credit market uncertainty.

New unemployment claims have been below the 400,000 threshold for several weeks and will probably stay near or just below that level when the latest figures come out Thursday. We will get the first word on nonfarm job creation and the unemployment rate for November on Friday. The news is not likely to be good – “good” would be the creation of at least 200,000 jobs during the month – but it should be less bad than it was during the summer, when job creation essentially stalled.

The bottom line is that the American economy, still by far the world’s largest (twice the size of China’s), hit bottom awhile ago. Companies may not be hiring much, but they are not cutting staff, either. And consumers, who represent about 70 percent of economic activity, are feeling the need to consume.

It was easy to put off replacing the car back in 2008 and 2009, when nobody knew exactly how bad things might get and almost everyone feared for his or her paycheck. But by now, the old clunker is pretty long in the tooth. Annual new car and truck sales, around 17 million units from 1999 through 2006, crashed to 10.6 million in 2009 and 11.8 million in 2010. Last month’s sales were 13.3 million at an annualized rate, and the latest data, also due out Thursday, is expected to be near 13.5 million. That’s nearly a 30 percent increase from the trough of the recent downturn. Each of those additional vehicles represents income for factory workers, delivery drivers, salespeople and service departments.

Gadgets like the Amazon Kindle continue to fly off the shelves when they are attractively priced. Airlines are making more money – despite high fuel prices – while carrying fewer people. That means more people are driving for the holidays. That means more business for hotels and motels. Tourism is back to record levels in South Florida, and hospitality industry employment in Broward and Miami-Dade counties has surpassed the pre-recession peak, the local Sun-Sentinel newspaper reported last week. At nearby Port Everglades, officials claimed that a world record number of cruise passengers, around 53,500, departed for tropical destinations on Saturday.

Stocks have been beaten down because of fears that governments and banks, primarily in Europe, will not be able to resolve their financial problems without unleashing another round of chaos in the markets. Jobs, salaries and pensions are on the chopping block across much of the continent. These problems show signs of spilling over to the factory floors in Asia, as reduced demand from the eurozone cuts the region’s exports. Back in the good old U.S.A., we have a Social Security tax break scheduled to expire at the end of December and all sorts of other taxes slated to rise a year later. We might put off the imminent tax increase, but we are otherwise unlikely to get any visibility on the near economic future until after next year’s elections. The uncertainty is clearly holding back all sorts of business expansion and investment.

But life really does go on. Many businesses have built big cash hoards so they can keep operating even if banks abruptly tighten credit. Consumers, likewise, have paid off debt for several years, which is partly what gave them financial room to splurge on holiday shopping.

Stock prices ultimately depend on corporate earnings, and corporate earnings depend much more on consumers than on governments and banks. So while there is a big downside to the current mess, that downside has largely been priced into stocks already. Anything that looks like “normal,” even a holiday shopping spree, reminds the markets that even the darkest nights are always followed by a dawn.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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