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Economy Scores Passing Grade, Today Anyway

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This Jan. 25, 2012, shows Gina Johnson performing leak tests on hydraulic fittings at the Eaton Corp. plant in Berea, Ohio. Manufacturing activity grew more slowly in February as factories received fewer new orders and paid higher prices for raw materials. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
This Jan. 25, 2012, shows Gina Johnson performing leak tests on hydraulic fittings at the Eaton Corp. plant in Berea, Ohio. Manufacturing activity grew more slowly in February as factories received fewer new orders and paid higher prices for raw materials. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

President Obama has bet a second term on selling an economic comeback. A big truckload of economic data released today suggests he's not losing that bet just yet.

Sure, the numbers were mostly disappointing, relative to market expectations. But they continue to be just good enough to make those who have been predicting a recession, and the politicians hoping for one, get ever hotter under the collar.

Let's grade the day's economic report card a C+. Readings on the job market and car and retail sales were solid, reports on factories and consumer spending were middling, and a report on construction spending was a downer.

The stock market is rallying Thursday, because that's just what it does these days, come hell or high water, briefly pushing the Dow Jones Industrial Average back above 13,000 for the first time since, uh, Tuesday.

But it's tough to tell whether the market is rising because it's encouraged by the economic numbers or because it's happy that some of the numbers missed forecasts, which could make it likelier that Gentle Ben Bernanke is warming up the Federal Reserve's money helicopter.

The simplest, and likeliest, explanation is that the market is cheering the most important number of the day: a drop in new claims for unemployment benefits. These numbers are loved by both economists and Wall Street traders -- straightforward, nearly real-time numbers that have a great track record as a leading economic indicator. They've been moving in the right direction, pretty steadily, for a while now.

Claims dipped to 351,000 last week from 353,000 the week before. This is, believe it or not, a good number -- better by far than nearly 700,000 at the worst of the recession, and matching the lowest number since March 2008.

Before the recession, weekly claims dipped below 300,000 for a stretch. We're almost back to that level.

Of course, this improvement could be a mirage. It could be a trick of seasonal adjustment problems. Or freakishly warm winter weather. A drop in claims doesn't necessarily mean people are definitely getting hired -- it could just mean they're not getting fired as much.

But for now there's no evidence these numbers are sending a false signal. They're consistent with the decent job growth we saw in January and may have gotten again in February.

The rest of the day's numbers were a little less rosy, but nothing to freak out about.

Personal spending and income both rose in January, but a bit lower than economists expected, according to the Commerce Department. Adjusted for inflation, spending was flat in January, according to Capital Economics.

Because the U.S. economy largely lives or dies on how willing we are to blow our paycheck at the Toys-R-Us, this is a bit of a bummer and means economic growth did not exactly jump out of the gate at the start of the year.

The rest of the day's numbers were even more downbeat: The Institute for Supply Management said its factory index fell in February, when economists had expected it to rise.

Factory employment, new orders and other important stuff all got a little bit weaker, while prices jumped, so naturally people screamed STAGFLATION.

Also not so hot? Construction spending, which dipped a bit in January, the Commerce Department said. Economists expected a gain.

But there was good news, from auto lots and shopping malls, or wherever it is people go to buy stuff these days (I, like Emily Peck, have not "bought" anything since 2006, so I wouldn't know).

February car and truck sales have so far come in about as strong as expected -- another sign the job market is not imploding.

And retail sales jumped 6.8 percent in February from a year ago, the International Council of Shopping Centers said. This is a trade group that always sees retail sales as AWESOME, so take this news with a shaker of salt, but we'll go with it for today.

So on the balance, there's nothing too horrible about these numbers.

But they're still not so great that we can just forget about the various risks out there (gas prices, Europe) that could shut the economy down again. We've seen it happen before. Many times.

And the bond market, where 10-year Treasury bonds still yield a super-low 2.04 percent, continues to grade on a different scale than the ebullient stock market. It seems to think the economy should be getting more like a D or an F.

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