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Only corporate America can save the economy from another subpar year

Aaron Task
Editor in Chief
Daily Ticker

Some grim housing data -- featuring mortgage lending at a 14-year low -- grabbed the headlines last week, but not all the economic news was slanted to the downside. Even the housing data wasn't all negative, as existing home sales in March were slightly higher than expected and the median home price rose 7.9% from a year ago.  And Monday's pending home sales data beat expectations, rising for the first time in nine months.

Among the other highlights:

  • March durable goods orders rose 2.6%, the biggest jump since November.
  • Consumer confidence, as measured by the University of Michigan, hit its highest level since July.
  • The NABE's quarterly survey showed "participants continue to report strong expectations for increased growth over the course of 2014.”

'Increased growth' in 2014 is indeed the forecast of most economists, both on Wall Street and at the Fed. The big questions are "how much growth?" and "what's the mix?"

In a recent appearance on The Daily Ticker, former Fed Vice Chair Alan Blinder questioned whether the consensus of 3% growth for all of 2014 is possible, given that first-quarter GDP is likely to be in the 1% to 1.5% range.  (The advanced Q1 GDP report is due on Wednesday.) 
"To make a 3% year ... we've got to do a lot better than 3% in the remaining three quarters and I'm just not quite that optimistic," Blinder said. "I don't see where the growth is going to come from. The consumer is doing fine, but I don't think the consumer is going to be a big growth engine."

Related: U.S. economy “not out of the woods,” says former Fed vice chair

In the accompanying video, taped Friday, I put the same question to Dan Gross, columnist at The Daily Beast and author of (most recently) Better, Stronger, Faster: The Myth of American Decline . . . and the Rise of a New Economy.

While Gross agrees with Blinder that 3% growth in 2014 is "probably optimistic," he is more upbeat about prospects for consumers, noting strength in retail sales vs. a year ago and a big drop in bankruptcies and delinquency rates. "People have done a really good job of keeping up with financial obligations," he says.

Gross further notes that state and local government spending is primed for a recovery while the federal government has "stopped putting the brakes on the economy" after years of slashing jobs and cutting spending via the sequester and shutdown.

But none of what Gross calls "favorable factors" are enough to get GDP out of the 2% to 2.5% range of recent years.

Looking back on the current expansion, which officially began in July 2009 according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Gross compares it to a "relay race" vs. a marathon or sprint. In the first part of the recovery, federal government spending -- in the form of the stimulus package -- led the way before handing off the proverbial baton to the Federal Reserve. Now that the housing market has cooled, corporations look like they're best positioned to lead the way.

Related: CapEx is “ a huge opportunity for investors,” Josh Brown says

Capital spending rose just 1% in 2013 to $613.4 billion, compared with 23% growth in share buybacks (to $477.3 billion) and a 14% increase in dividend payments (to $1.3 trillion), The Wall Street Journal reports. But analysts are expecting a 6% increase in capEx this year, according to FactSet, which could give the economy a much-needed boost. A recent increase in commercial lending by the nation's six biggest banks -- up 8.3% in the first quarter vs. a year ago -- is fueling further optimism that 2014 could be the year of the capEx comeback.

"Just as Americans -- after years of not buying new cars -- finally started to break down because their equipment was eight, nine, 10 years old and [are] buying new cars, this may be the year that corporate America does the same with its factories and equipment," Gross says.

With about $2 trillion in cash, corporations certainly are able; the question is whether they're willing. The answer may ultimately determine whether the U.S. economy hits 3% growth this year or falls short of its potential yet again. 

Aaron Task is the host of The Daily Ticker and Editor-in-Chief of Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter at @aarontask or email him at altask@yahoo.com.