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Vital Signs: Mixed Signals

Some investors believe the U.S. economy is quickly running out of steam. The sagging housing market is the top culprit, but there have been other mixed signals on activity lately. Recent softer data are a key reason for the furious rally in the bond market. The next week will provide some guidance on whether the pessimism is justified or overblown.

The big report will come at the end of the week with the September payroll figures. The chief concern among those who see the economy sinking along with housing is that flat or falling home prices will stop consumers from spending. However, if companies keep hiring, even at the modest pace of late, it will help to offset the downdraft from housing.

Beyond job gains, wages are also important. Hourly wages were up 3.9% from a year ago. Strength in wages and salaries are a big reason for the strong gains in personal income. This also provides consumers with the cash they need to keep spending.

But businesses will only keep hiring if demand holds up. The national business activity surveys from the Institute for Supply Management will provide a better picture of business conditions. A surprising and broad-based fall in durable goods orders for August only fanned the flames for those nervous about the economy.

A more complete picture of orders during August will come via the full report on factory orders. The August figures on construction outlays will also reveal whether businesses remain confident to erect more offices, build more stores, and expand factory floors. But the report will also serve as yet another reminder that housing activity is indeed sinking fast.

Here's the weekly economic calendar, from Action Economics.

Economic Reports

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