Trumponomics explained: Why growth is going to take a while

Cohn: Jobs plan going exactly the way we want it to
Cohn: Jobs plan going exactly the way we want it to

Looking at the raw numbers so far in the Trump era, one easily could wonder what all the fuss is about.

An agenda aimed at promoting a new day of American progress has started off fairly lackluster: Auto and retail sales have been punk and productivity is retreating, the U.S. trade deficit continues to swell while manufacturing is contracting, and first-quarter overall growth looks like it will struggle to get over 1 percent.

The only unquestionably good numbers have come in hiring — and they may be the most important of all because they represent not just actions taken in the past but also intentions and expectations for the future.

Numbers like Friday's nonfarm payrolls report and a recent slew of sentiment surveys of businesses, consumers and investors add up to a belief that President Donald Trump will deliver on his economic promises.

An expression gaining more and more popularity these days on Wall Street is "animal spirits," first coined by John Maynard Keynes to describe human emotion that drives business activity.

"I absolutely concur with the animal spirits idea and the prospect of Trumponomics," said Phil Orlando, chief equity strategist at Federated Investors. "The surge we've seen in the last four months or so both in the confidence data and the sentiment survey data, those are leading indicators. The hard data follow with a lag."

How long will it take?

Indeed, purchase managers indexes, surveys from the Institute for Supply Management and the National Federation of Independent Business all are showing strong upticks in optimism.

Similarly, the closely watched University of Michigan consumer sentiment survey edged lower in February, but that was after hitting a 10-year high in January. On a three-month average, the survey is the highest it's been since March 2004.

As Orlando sees it, that can't be mere coincidence.

"Nothing's changed other than the leadership and the prospect that we're going to get tax cuts, deregulation, infrastructure spending, repatriation, changes in the tax code, etc.," he said. "All that is related to confidence."

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The question now becomes how long it takes the promise of the new agenda to translate into real gains.

Friday's report showing the economy created 235,000 jobs in February is a bright spot but is only a baby step. In fact, some economists had been predicting a big number based on the blockbuster ADP/Moody's Analystics report Wednesday that indicated private payrolls surged by 298,000.

Orlando actually expected Friday's number to be closer to 267,000, while Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, said he was looking for 240,000.

To be sure, the Trump economy has its detractors and not everyone is impressed by all the enthusiasm.

David Rosenberg, senior economist and strategist at Gluskin Sheff, called Friday's report "completely bogus" because of weather distortions. He believes the economy is struggling to tread water, and not thriving.

He cautioned that history has shown that sentiment surveys are volatile and can drop quickly.

"The lesson here is to fade the surveys that the markets respond to when not corroborated with the hard data in hand," Rosenberg said in his daily note Friday.

An action agenda

The key to sustaining the goodwill generated so far by Trumponomics, then, will be action.

Investors already are bristling over the pace of action in Congress, and surveys in the stock market have taken a hit.

Cohn: When we're done with health care reform, we'll get to taxes
Cohn: When we're done with health care reform, we'll get to taxes

A gauge of market pros from Investors Intelligence showed bullishness at a still-robust 58 percent, though that's off a 30-year high. The mom-and-pop crowd, however, is quite a bit more restless: The American Association of Individual Investors survey showed bulls down to 30 percent, the lowest since February 2016. It's all coincided with a rough week for stocks, with the market struggling Friday to hold a post-jobs report rally.

Wall Street, then, will be watching closely to see how quickly Trump can enact his ambitious agenda.

"The public expects a rollback in regulations and a new tax plan to result in higher earnings and more hiring. In order to fulfill these expectations, it is crucial that Congress come through with the promised tax plan," said Diana Furchtgott-Roth, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and former Department of Labor chief economist. "The Trump administration can reform regulations alone, but it cannot change tax laws."

How all of the economic momentum comes together, then, isn't a one-off event, though numbers like Friday's jobs report will boost the argument that the economy has seen a Trump bump.

Only the future will tell the whole story.

"People want to know whether this is a so-called 'Trump bump' for the job market or something else. The quick answer is that sentiment or optimism on the part of business and consumers has been lifted by the Trump victory, but that's not quite the same as increased sales," said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate. "Businesses need to see a rise in demand before deciding to boost their employment."

Watch: A data-driven administration

Cohn: We are data-driven and trying to drive the administration to make right decisions
Cohn: We are data-driven and trying to drive the administration to make right decisions