Need a reason for optimism about the U.S. economy? The Hartford’s chief investment strategist for wealth management has six.

A combination of factors, from falling gas prices to ample corporate cash, could goose the economy’s growth this year, even if most predictions are far more tepid, said Bob Froehlich, executive vice president and chief investment strategist for wealth management at The Hartford.

“I’m certainly in the minority right now. That’s for sure,” he said.

High on Froehlich’s list of overlooked positives is the fact that corporations are sitting on their highest levels of cash in half a century. When those companies start to spend their money on everything from technology to dividends, they will provide a private-sector stimulus to the economy, he said.

Corporate spending could be the “critical driver” in sending economic growth up about 3% for the fourth quarter, Froehlich argues, adding that the Dow should eclipse 14,000 by year’s end.
Other factors behind Froehlich’s bullish outlook:

-- The stock market rally. The Dow is up nearly 1,000 points this year -- even more on a year-over-year basis. The rally may create a positive wealth effect, boosting consumers’ balance sheets and turning them into more confident consumers.

-- Auto sales rebound. The disaster in Japan and banks’ unwillingness to lend were short-term disruptions that are coming to an end. “Big-ticket items such as automobiles can have a bigger impact on our economy than most investors realize,” Froehlich said in a recent commentary.

-- Falling gasoline prices. Gasoline prices are well off their peak and are continuing to trend lower, he said. That’s even better than a tax cut because consumers don’t have to wait until tax time to reap the benefit.

-- Exports are higher. Exports are continuing to trend higher, in part because global central bank interest-rate hikes are at the end of the cycle, which may lead to a stronger second half of the year. Indeed, Froehlich opines that the worst of the global slowdown is behind us. Meanwhile, the U.S. dollar will remain weak against almost every currency in the world with the exception of the euro, creating a competitive trade advantage, he argues.

-- Low mortgage rates. Rates remain at record lows, and when rates stay low enough for long enough, eventually housing tends to pick up.

What could derail Froehlich’s scenario? The biggest risk is a large spike in oil costs, which would “destroy” business and consumer confidence, he said.

What’s more, economic growth and employment may remain de-coupled, he said. Older people are working longer, and corporations have gotten used to doing more with less. Unemployment should remain around 9% over the next year, he added.

Froehlich also said that he’s not concerned about a U.S. default, calling it “all political rhetoric” with no chance of becoming reality.


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