When it comes to the U.S. economy, the glass may not be half empty after all.
Three prominent bears -- David Rosenberg, chief economist at Gluskin Sheff & Associates, Mohamed El-Erian, chief executive officer at Pacific Investment Management Co. and David Levy, chairman of the Jerome Levy Forecasting Center -- separately see some hopeful signs. These include a housing market that is healing, a more competitive manufacturing industry and technological breakthroughs that could boost productivity.
“More so than at any time in the past three years, I’m doing whatever I can to identify silver linings in the clouds,” Rosenberg said.
None of the three is ready to declare the all-clear. While the chances the economy could perform better than expected are “somewhat” higher than before, the downside risks are bigger, said El-Erian, who oversees $1.9 trillion at Pimco in Newport Beach, California. These include the so-called fiscal cliff, which all three agree would trigger a recession if nothing is done to avert its spending cuts and tax increases.
The continued caution of the three economists is reflected in advice they are giving investors. Rosenberg recommends gold- mining stocks and shares of utility companies, the latter as part of a strategy he’s dubbed “Safety and Income at a Reasonable Price.”
“This is a time to be defensive,” said Levy of the Mount Kisco, New York-based economic forecaster. “We are still in a rocky period.” He has been bullish on Treasury bonds for more than five years and eventually sees yields falling even further. The yield on the 30-year bond was 2.78 percent as of 5 p.m. yesterday in New York, according to Bloomberg Bond Trader data.
El-Erian suggests investors look outside the U.S. for economies that are growing faster and put money in companies and nations with strong balance sheets, including Brazil’s and Mexico’s local bonds. He said investors also should “actively” manage their portfolios to protect against downside risks and take advantage of upside surprises that might materialize through the use of puts, calls and other trading strategies.
El-Erian and Rosenberg recommended a defensive stance on financial markets about a year ago in separate interviews on Bloomberg Television. Toronto-based Rosenberg said investors should look at dividend-paying health-care, utility and consumer-staples stocks, which are least-tied to changes in economic growth.
Drugmakers in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index are up 16 percent and producers of household goods have risen 9.7 percent in 2012. Utilities have fallen about 2 percent for the worst performance among the 10 major industries in the gauge.
El-Erian said Dec. 19 that the first part of 2012 would be “risk off” as Europe’s sovereign-debt crisis encouraged demand for safety. Yields on 10-year U.S. Treasuries rose to 2.21 percent on March 30 from 1.88 percent at the start of the year, while the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index jumped 12 percent. For the year to date, the stock index also is up 12 percent.
The U.S. economy will grow 2 percent next year and 2.8 percent in 2014, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said last month. That is faster than the average for the OECD’s 34 members of 1.4 percent in 2013 and 2.3 percent in 2014.
Both Rosenberg and Levy foresaw the bursting of the housing bubble in 2007, the former when he was chief economist for North America at Merrill Lynch & Co. in New York. They’ve generally been more pessimistic than the consensus of economists since then, with Levy saying the U.S. is experiencing a “contained depression,” and Rosenberg incorrectly forecasting the U.S. would relapse into recession at the start of this year. The previous slump began in December 2007 and lasted 18 months.