Mixed Messages As The World Economy Churns

Talk about sending a mixed message. The news from a couple of bellwether fronts this morning is along the lines of “we’re doing pretty well, thank you, but it can only get worse.” The most prominent among them is General Motors, which optimists have been pointing to as a sign of resilience in the domestic economy.

Another way to put it is the way Detroit Free-Press columnist Tom Walsh does this morning: “Is this as good as things are going to get for General Motors? That's what stock market traders seemed to be asking Wednesday, as they drove GM's share price down 10.9% to $22.31 after the automaker posted a $1.7-billion third-quarter profit.”

That’s on top of a 39% plunge already this year. Forbes’ Joann Muller thinks investors are “missing the point,” however, and that they “shouldn’t overlook what’s going right at GM these days.” Part of that is that it is turning out good automobiles but it also now has top managers who “are not trying to sugarcoat GM’s performance.”



Case in point: “GM delivered a solid quarter, thanks to our leadership positions in North America and China, where we have grown both sales and market share this year,” CEO Daniel F. Akerson says in a statement. “But solid isn’t good enough, even in a tough economy.”

And when you look at Walsh’s analysis, the biggest weakness in the automaker’s prospects is its overseas sales, with drop-offs forecast for Europe, South America and Asia.

“That leaves it up to the good old USA to carry the load,” Walsh writes, and analyst Maryann Keller gives him several reasons to remain “rosy” about the outlook here. "There are a lot of people who bought cars five years ago and have their loans paid off now,” she says. “Used car prices are good, new car prices are attractive, credit is cheap."

IHS Automotive analyst Rebecca Lindland tells the New York Times’s Nick Bunkley that GM “still needs to pare expenses to be successful long term but can only go so far in areas like product development.” Citing the bad product reviews Toyota and Honda have received for the cheaper interiors of recent models, she cautions that GM “simply cannot afford to sacrifice product for pennies. They must continue to build products that consumers are willing to pay for, and that’s much more likely to require significant investment.”

Most stories about Macy’s quarterly results play up its strong third-quarter earnings and the fact that it announced plans to open three new stores but the headline on Karen Talley’s report in the Wall Street Journal is “Macy's Dims Its Forecast for Holidays.”

Macy’s margins were narrower than analysts anticipated, Talley reports, and it “is also dealing with an uncertain economy and conditions such as higher costs for cotton.” But it continues to gain market share and CFO Karen Hoguet told analysts on a call that the retailer feels “very prepared” and “very excited” about the next three months.

Hoguet’s cohorts are not as cheery, however. A survey of CFOs conducted by Grant Thornton finds that “optimism is plummeting, as evidence by the increased number of CFOs that report that their companies are scaling back hiring amid worry about the cost of health care and other benefits,” according to a press release. Only 11% of CFOs expect the economy to get better over the next six months. Thirty-seven percent say it will get worse and 52% think it will stay the same.

“Ongoing high levels of uncertainty weigh heavily on business leaders today, stifling growth strategies in this volatile economic environment,” says Grant Thornton CEO Stephen Chipman.

Although “Outlook Dims” seems to be an operative catch-phrase of headline writers everywhere recently, the tree-hugging LED light bulbs will be burning bright at Walmarts across the U.S. this Thanksgiving Day.

The retailer will announce today that it is opening at 10 p.m. on Nov. 24, Stephanie Clifford reports in the New York Times, with specials such as Barbie and Disney Princess fashion dolls for $5 and men’s Wrangler jeans for $9.97. There’s nothing like a sprint from the front door to the dungaree department to work off all those pumpkin-pie-with-whipped-cream calories, eh?

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