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What U.S. Manufacturing Boost Means for Investors

While Europe’s economy remains in crisis mode, the U.S. continues to chug along, according to manufacturing data released today. But that news may not be enough to sustain an end-of-year market rally, analysts say.

Manufacturing activity in the U.S. increased slightly to 52.7 in November from 50.8 in October, the Institute of Supply Management reported this morning. A reading above 50 for the index, which takes into account production, inventory, new orders, and prices, among other factors, means the economy is expanding, experts say. Gary Thayer, chief macro strategist for Wells Fargo Advisors, contends the data is another sign that the U.S. is avoiding a recession at a time when manufacturing activity is  slowing in the euro zone and the U.K. “We are seeing some improving trends in the economy here later in the year compared to what we saw over the summer,” says Thayer.

The figure indicates the U.S. economy is growing even while Euro zone countries are suffering from a debt crisis, some analysts say, but advisers warn the news is unlikely to push markets higher and caution investors against making moves based on such reports. Jeff Seymour, managing director of Triangle Wealth Management in Cary, N.C, says the news isn’t enough for him to feel comfortable with buying stocks. Despite November’s increase, the manufacturing index has largely been flat since the summer. That means the economy is growing, but just barely, says Seymour, who pulled out of equities earlier this year, is using exchange-traded funds to bet against  the S&P 500 and European stocks.

Indeed, measures that have traditionally driven markets, like employment figures, manufacturing data and GDP growth, are having less impact on market performance while the European debt crisis hangs over investors’ heads, experts say. “You have to be careful not to respond too positively on good news of economic activity as long as a threat in Europe continues to weaken the financial system,” says John Lonski, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics, pointing out that markets fell for most of November despite a strong corporate earnings season.

Some pros caution the manufacturing index could sink in the coming months and equity markets may get weighed down if the slowdown in Europe takes a bigger toll on the U.S., says Seymour. And there are other signs that the economy is sluggish at home, says Thayer, such as cautious spending by consumers and businesses and a weak housing market.

Advisers like Seymour recommend conservative investors maintain a defensive stance until there is more clarity on how the debt issues in Europe and the U.S. might be resolved. Rob Russell, a financial adviser in Dayton, Ohio, is investing more heavily in alternatives such as natural resources, private equity and absolute return funds where managers have the flexibility to invest across asset classes and countries.

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