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Improving labor numbers mean economic growth ahead

Economics in a nutshell: While we may not again see GDP growth this strong soon, the improving labor market clearly points to strong economic growth going forward.

INDICATOR: Revised Third Quarter GDP and Jobless Claims

KEY DATA: GDP: 3.6% (up from 2.8%); Jobless Claims: 298,000 (down 23,000)

IN A NUTSHELL: "While we may not again see GDP growth this strong soon, the improving labor market clearly points to strong economic growth going forward."

WHAT IT MEANS: Really, things seem to be coming together. Jobless claims broke the magical 300,000 level, a pace that you only see consistently when job growth is really strong. I don't expect we will stay here as the labor market has not shifted gears completely, but the process is well under way. Indeed, the Challenger, Gray and Christmas November layoff numbers were down from last November. Of course we were in the midst of a major political battle last November so maybe we should discount that a little. Still, layoffs are not accelerating and as long as hiring is picking up, which seems to be the case, job gains should be strong. The key will be economic growth and the revisions to growth during the summer were sharp. Unfortunately, the details were not as upbeat as the headline. Much of the upward revision came from firms adding a lot more to their inventories than initially estimated. Indeed, nearly half the total gain came from the inventory build. The likelihood is that will reverse itself this quarter and next. Excluding inventories, final sales were up only 1.9%, which may be a better indicator of underlying strength. Also, consumer spending was revised downward a touch. Households are hitting the malls and dealerships but spending on services, which is two-thirds consumption and 45% of the entire economy, was flat. That needs to change before we can get to strong growth, something I have said many, many times. There was good news for businesses as corporate profits were quite strong once again. Cash flow soared.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: Headlines are nice but details matter and the revisions to GDP don't really change the picture a whole lot. We have to discount somewhat the higher growth pace because the inventory gain is likely to unwind, slowing growth this quarter and possibly next. Business investment was less than robust but strong corporate profits and cash flow and firms are in great financial position to take advantage of any acceleration in growth. I expect investment to rise going forward. However, current quarter growth could be about half the third quarter number. Regardless, tomorrow is Employment Friday, the biggest day of the month. If you believe the claims numbers, and they tend to be worth following, we could get another month of above-200,000 payroll gains and don't be surprised if the unemployment rate drops to 7.1% from 7.3%. If that happens, equity investors will be in a real bind. A strong labor market points to an earlier tapering but also a faster growing economy. That is the yin and the yang of the labor market numbers and points out that Main Street and Wall Street have not only become disconnected but are actually in opposite camps.