New year heralds good fiscal tidings

Forecasts show 2004 bringing more jobs and lower deficits.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The US economy is poised for its best performance in five years.

Economists describe an economy that will be "solid," "sustainable," and "entering the new year with a wonderful head of steam."

If the optimistic forecasts are accurate, it will mean more Americans find jobs in 2004 - something that has been more difficult this year. A stronger economy could also help lower the federal budget deficit, as government coffers grow from stronger tax collections and fewer unemployment payments. Altogether, it could help President Bush in his reelection bid.

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"The economic expansion finally looks secure," says Bill Dudley, chief economist for Goldman Sachs & Co. in New York. "We are a lot more optimistic compared to the last few years."

Behind the optimism is a stronger world economy, which will help absorb some of the production that has ended up in US ports. At the same time, US corporations are in better shape and are starting to spend more money on new products and factories. And, as company balance sheets improve, the stock market may continue its bullish ways - engendering yet more confidence. Just on Monday, in fact, the Nasdaq closed above 2000 for the first time in nearly two years.

With these factors in play, economists anticipate the nation's gross domestic product will top 4 percent growth next year. That's compared with 3 percent this year, 2.5 percent in 2002, and no growth in 2001, a recession year. But in the second half of 2004, some economists, such as Mr. Dudley, expect the economy to slow slightly - perhaps to a 3 percent growth rate - as some of the tax-cut stimulus wears off.

Still, the stronger growth will add about 1 million new jobs to the US economy, estimates Mark Zandi of Economy.com, an economic website. This will help to recoup some of the 2.4 million jobs that have been lost since February 2001, when unemployment started moving up. If things go well, "we'll get half those jobs back," says Mr. Zandi, who adds that there are still 8 million unemployed workers.

Yet despite some improvement already in the jobs picture, employment continues to be a key concern for many Americans. Some analysts predict only moderate gains in hiring.

When considering other factors, economists see a few possible clouds on the horizon. "A substantial terrorist hit would jolt things [and] be a serious risk to the economy," says David Kotok, chief investment officer at Cumberland Advisors Inc. in Vineland, N.J. "The security apparatus - the Department of Home- land Security, which is already gigantic - would double in size," says Mr. Kotok, who is otherwise very upbeat on the economy.

William Sullivan, executive director of fixed-income research at Morgan Stanley, worries that a bomb might go off in a shopping mall. "If something calls into question the safety of American families in public places, that would be a very negative development for growth and the economy as a whole," he says. "It would be devastating in the short run."

Momentum in late 2003

Despite such concerns, most economists expect the US economy to continue to benefit from the forces that have been propelling it in the second half of 2003. For example, most Americans will continue to benefit from the cut in tax rates. Although this is already in most paychecks, it will also show up next year when people file their 2003 income taxes: The tax cut was retroactive to Jan. 1, but withholding rates didn't account for it until July 1. This means many people will have larger-than-expected income tax refunds, boosting consumption.

More tax moves could be in the offing, says Peter Orszag, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He sees a variety of signs the administration will propose an initiative that gives tax breaks on the interest for "Lifetime Savings Accounts." This would allow everyone to put up to $7,500 per person per year into a tax-free account. The money could be used at any time to buy just about anything.

On the other hand, Mr. Orszag has no doubt that Congress will quickly repeal the tax breaks now given to corporations for exporting. They have been ruled illegal under the World Trade Organization, and Europe has threatened retaliation if the US doesn't act soon. "The question is how they will be replaced," he says.

The Fed and rates

While Congress debates future fiscal stimulus, most analysts expect the Federal Reserve to continue its easy-money policy - that is, keeping interest rates low. The bulls reason that Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan will want to see convincing evidence that inflation is picking up before the Fed raises rates. For the past six months, the core rate of inflation has slowed to a 1 percent annual rate.

"We think they will be very patient," says Dudley. "We don't think they will tighten at all for 2004."

But others, like Kotok of Cumberland Advisors, envision a gradual increase in rates by the second half of the year. "A 1 percent federal funds rate [the current rate] is inconsistent with economic growth of 4 to 5 percent and inflation of 2 percent," he says. "The question is how they make the transition to something higher."

Any increase in rates could hurt the many consumers who are already burdened by high debt loads, says Mr. Sullivan of Morgan Stanley. "So much debt is priced to the open market, and it ratchets up as rates go higher," he explains.

Even Sullivan, however, who is skeptical about the extent of the economic bounce in 2004, admits there could be pleasant surprises. "We've got a big resilient economy, but it doesn't negate the fact there are challenges."

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