Mixed Signals Economy Indicated No Clear Direction in 2005

By Comerford, Mike | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), December 25, 2005 | Go to article overview
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Mixed Signals Economy Indicated No Clear Direction in 2005

Comerford, Mike, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)

Byline: Mike Comerford Daily Herald Business Writer

In the case of the 2005 economy, hindsight isn't 20-20.

Economic indicators didn't line up in the same, clear direction as many corporations reported record earnings but consumers felt squeezed by rising interest rates, health care costs, energy prices and record household debt - among other things.

"Don't forget the pension reductions at Sears, Hewlett Packard and Verizon, among others," said Diane Swonk, chief economist and senior managing partner, Mesirow Financial, Chicago. "We saw a shifting of the burdens of saving for the future away from companies and onto the shoulders of the consumer."

Certainly, Elk Grove Township-based United Airlines' successful bid to unburden itself of its pensions by handing them over to the quasi-governmental Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. sparked a national debate on the possibility of collapsing pension plans at other companies.

Still, several of the top indicators in the country were positive.

Gross domestic product chugged along at about 3.6 percent growth - a steady but not exactly thrilling pace. Unemployment slid slightly to 5.1 percent. And housing starts kept up a near record pace.

Companies continued to outsource jobs to China and India, keeping productivity also growing at a good clip. Wages remained flat for a fifth straight year after discounting for inflation. All of which led to 11 straight quarters of double-digit earnings growth.

Locally, Hoffman Estates-based Sears Holdings Corp. completed its merger with Kmart and shook up its management corps, replacing Chief Executive Officer Alan Lacy with former Kmart executive Aylwin Lewis. And its billionaire chairman Edward Lampert took a more hands-on role.

Sears struggled with declining same-store sales figures but its latest earnings report exceeded expectations and its stock trades in excess of $100 a share.

United Airlines continued to write off billions of dollars in restructuring charges but posted operational profits and pledged to exit bankruptcy early in 2006.

Schaumburg-based Motorola Inc. continued to make layoffs in some areas but hired in others and surprised some analysts with stronger than expected cell phone sales and new products. Its shares trade near their 52-week-high.

High-speed Internet products propelled Naperville-based Tellabs Inc. sales up 63 percent in the latest quarter, even as profits dipped slightly due to a tax charge.

Reflecting a national merger and acquisition trend, Chicago- based Exelon Corp.

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