The American economy is reinventing itself.
Gone are the days of excessive leverage and the dominance of Wall Street. Gone are the days when the stock market –and U.S. economy — had to be led by banks.
“The U.S. economy is transitioning from a financial services economy into something much more real,” said Meredith Whitney, the former star Wall Street analyst who now helps run a hedge fund.
As the stock market turns the page on its worst month in a year, the ongoing economic transformation leaves investors wondering: If not banking, where are these “real” drivers of future economic growth?
Biotech boom: Health care certainly seems to be one driver. The industry, a big winner in the stock market over the past year, has benefited from the shifting demographics of the U.S. population.
“The only way to support the influx of aging and newly-insured participants is to medicate,” said Whitney, speaking at ETF.com’s Inside ETFs Conference last week.
That’s a big positive for companies like biotech rock star Gilead Sciences. The maker of hepatitis C drugs is expected to reveal an eye-popping 300% surge in earnings per share when it reports results on Tuesday.
More traditional pharmaceutical companies like Merck should also benefit from the demographic shift. Merck is expected to post annual sales of $42 billion when it reports on Friday, a slight decrease from 2013.
Cheap oil = more manufacturing jobs: Whitney, who back in 2007 presciently predicted Citigroup was in serious financial trouble, believes the labor market will get a shot in the arm from the manufacturing sector. Her thinking is that relatively cheap energy costs in the U.S. will prompt manufacturers to bring more jobs back to America.
A fresh look at the overall labor market is due out on Friday when the government releases the first read on 2015. The January report comes on the heels of the best year of employment growth for the U.S. since 1999.
Increased job creation and cheaper energy costs are expected to unleash consumer spending, which accounts for 70% of the U.S. economy.
While lackluster holiday sales are worrying some investors, Whitney is confident that consumers are going to prove willing to spend, not just save. The average American driver is expected to save $750 this year on gas.
Cashing in on consumers: That would be music to the ears of consumer-focused companies like Chipotle. The Mexican casual dining chain — whose shares popped nearly 30% last year — is expected to log annual sales of $4.1 billion on Tuesday. That’s up by 28% from a year ago.
The same can be said about Walt Disney, which cashes in when consumers shell out big bucks to go see Mickey Mouse (and, lately, all things Frozen and Elsa).
Other big winners from stronger consumer include sports clothing retailer Under Armour, another top 2014 stock. The apparel maker is expected to sport a 24% bump in fourth-quarter sales when it reports on Wednesday.
And don’t forget about coffee giant Keurig Green Mountain and Taco Bell owner Yum! Brands, each of which are also reporting results this week.
Auto makers should benefit from the shifting economic dynamics in two ways. Not only would increased consumer spending drive sales, but cheaper U.S. energy costs drive sales for gas-guzzling SUVs.
Investors will get a fresh look at the health of the auto market on Tuesday when Chrysler, General Motors and Ford post January sales.
$1 trillion present: Another key road to future economic growth could be just that: roads.
America’s aging infrastructure badly needs a face lift. Whitney said well over $1 trillion of spending on roads, bridges and tunnels is needed and politicians in Washington are slowly realizing it would be good for the economy, too.
“Infrastructure has been the gift-wrapped package on the desk of politicians for a decade. It looks like this will be the year” politicians finally open it, Whitney said.