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Consumers Are Spending Again: Here's How to Cash in

The bump in second quarter economic growth may be temporary. Here's what to expect in a slow growth environment.
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The Dow's swoon last week came on the heels of a brightening economic picture for the second quarter. The U.S.'s gross domestic product, a benchmark of the value of the goods and services produced, grew 4 percent in the quarter, about twice what it's been for the previous few quarters.

While last week's drop doesn't ruin that performance, for some observers, it's a wakeup call. It's likely that some of the froth is coming out of the stock market's flashiest performers, such as the many social media companies that have gone public and seen their stock prices rise dramatically these past few years. On the other hand, a sector that's likely to do well is consumer staples--all of the diapers and sodas and cue tips that are the relatively more modest lifeblood of the economy.

This retrenchment could serve as a wakeup call for you too--that you should cash in on demand for smaller purchases, and reset your growth expectations.

"We will see a bifurcation between companies that can grow in a low-growth environment, and companies that for the past several years have done financial engineering and have run out of a methodology to extract more earnings per share," says Drew Nordlicht, partner and managing director of Hightower San Diego, an affiliate of Hightower Advisors. The firm manages $25 billion in assets of venture capitalists, private equity fund managers, chief executives, and entrepreneurs who founded companies that went public or received private equity funding.

On average, the largest  U.S. companies that make up the S&P 500 have seen revenues increase about 4 percent and profits jolt nearly 8 percent in the second quarter, marking substantial increases over the prior two years, according to the Wall Street Journal. Many of these companies are large stalwarts of the U.S. consumer staples world, companies like Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, and Kimberly-Clark.

And they're likely to continue doing well, experts say, particularly as the Fed dials down on its quantative easing programs, the latest manifestation of which has been its monthly bond-buying program for Treasuries. The purpose of these programs has been to increase monetary supply and, by extension, the value of assets like stocks and real estate. While valuations, particularly for tech companies, have gotten stretched as a result, that's not the case for consumer staples, where price-to-earnings multiples are hovering at more historic norms. 

But companies expecting a big consumer pop will be left waiting. Year over year wage growth as of July was a scant 2 percent, Nordlicht says, as consumer expenses have continued to increase. Meanwhile, the consumer optimism that fueled the economic expansion of the 1990s, that went along with the Dotcom bubble, is largely absent from the scene today. That's also the case for the lever of expanding home values, which marked the bubble of the 2000s and allowed consumers to pull money out of equity. 

Consumers are buying again for sure, but not really big-ticket items. They're either leery of, or unable to access, credit for big items, and they're only doing so if it's absolutely necessary. (Nordlicht points to the aged fleet of cars on U.S. roads as the recession kicked in, which has prompted strong car purchases this year.) So prepare for modest growth, and potentially decreasing company values, particularly if you're a tech company whose prospects have risen these past few years.

"We're not going to see the topline growth necessary for higher stock market price earnings multiples," says Nordlicht. 

Last updated: Aug 4, 2014

JEREMY QUITTNER | Staff Writer | Staff Writer, Inc. and Inc.com

Jeremy Quittner is a staff writer for Inc. magazine and Inc.com. He previously covered technology for American Banker and entrepreneurship for BusinessWeek.




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