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A tale of America's two economies

October 18, 2012: 11:29 AM ET

Housing rebounds while business investment falls. What gives?

FORTUNE – As business cycles generally go, when consumers signal they feel good about the economy, companies take it as a sign to follow by spending and hiring more.

But U.S. markets these days have worked in unexpected ways, and the latest news from the housing industry magnifies just how companies and consumers have diverged. Households are willing to spend more. And yet, businesses appear to be slashing investment. What gives?

In September, builders started construction on single-family homes and apartments at the fastest rate in more than four years, the Commerce Department reported Wednesday. The number of homes that were started increased 15% from August to an annual rate of 872,000 – the fastest rate since July 2008. The pick-up has been happening for the past year, and signs point to the housing market recovery having staying power. In the coming months, builders plan to build more homes at a faster pace. Applications for building permits surged nearly 12% to an annual rate of 894,000 – the highest since July 2008 as well.

And if you believe JPMorgan (JPM) CEO Jamie Dimon, the long-struggling housing market has indeed "turned the corner." The bank, as well as Wells Fargo (WFC), kicked off Wall Street earnings season last week reporting record profits supported by a surge in demand for mortgages. As ultra-low interest rates prompt homeowners to refinance existing mortgages and buyers to get new ones, the banks reap more fees from borrowers. This follows after consumer confidence in October surged to a five-year high and continued its upward rise in September.

MORE: Housing is indeed higher

But while consumers in recent months may feel confident enough to buy new homes, cars and the like, the business world doesn't seem all that convinced. As Capital Economics economist Paul Ashworth noted in a report released Wednesday, shipments of capital goods – an indicator of business investment in machinery and equipment – have been stagnant. And in September, for the first time since the heights of the Great Recession in early 2009, orders fell to negative territory.

It's as if the economy is "developing a split personality," Ashworth noted. Increasingly, the looming fiscal cliff of steep tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect next year has left corporate America worried about the future of their companies. Take CSX Corp (CSX), a good economic barometer because of the breadth of goods the railroad company ships.

On Wednesday, Chief Executive Michael Ward chiefly blamed uncertainty over the fiscal cliff for a slowdown in freight volumes over the past few months.

This follows remarks from other executives, including Goldman Sachs (GS) Lloyd Blankfein, who last week went as far as saying he would be willing to pay 5% more in taxes if it became necessary for Congress to strike a deal to reduce the U.S. deficit before the start of 2013 when the automatic tax hikes and spending cuts would go through. He added it would be a "huge" positive impact on the economy if a deal was reached.

MORE: Obama has a jobs plan. Why isn't he talking about it?

Either consumers are oblivious about the fiscal cliff or merely slow to worry about it, but the sentiment from corporate America will nonetheless trickle down.

"The potential tax increases are likely to weigh more on consumption as we get closer to the year-end deadline," Ashworth wrote. "If, as we expect, a deal is eventually done to avert the fiscal cliff, however, then we could see a bounce-back in investment early in the year, as pent-up demand is released."

That may actually happen, but it's also hard not to wonder if the business world is casting way too much blame on the fiscal cliff. After all, of all the components that make up America's economy, business investment saw the biggest dip in the years following the latest recession. True, spending by companies on everything from buildings to new equipment to software has risen steadily since 2009, but it's still below levels prior to the downturn. Whereas investment as a share of GDP was 13.1% during the three months ending in June, it was markedly higher at 15% during the same period in 2008. Meanwhile, consumers have held up much better than most gave them credit for, as consumption has kept pace with the economy. During the latest quarter, personal spending made up 71% of the economy, roughly what it was prior to the recession.

All this raises the question of what's really holding up American businesses? If Congress weren't slow to act on the nation's fiscal woes, then it would be uncertainties over Europe's ongoing debt crisis. And if Europe weren't such a financial mess, then executives might probably blame slower growth in China. And so on.

Which brings us back to that opaque election-year question: Are we really better off?

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About This Author
Nin-Hai Tseng
Nin-Hai Tseng
Writer, Fortune

Nin-Hai Tseng covers economics and finance. Before joining Fortune, Tseng was a reporter at The Orlando Sentinel and a public affairs associate at GE. She holds an MPA from Columbia University and a BS in Journalism from the University of Florida. She lives in New York City.

Email | @ninhaitseng | RSS

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