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Outlook For Wages Brightens, But Not So For Wall Street

If you are getting spooked by plunging stock prices, you may be trying to figure out where the economy is heading.

Here's one new sign that better days are coming:

In the latest survey of business economists, most — 58 percent — say their companies plan to raise workers' wages this winter. That's the most upbeat wage outlook since mid-2014, according to the quarterly survey done by the National Association for Business Economics.

Combine those coming raises with Americans' savings from cheap gasoline and lower home heating bills and you must have a formula for a brighter U.S. economy.

Or so you would think.

Unfortunately, Monday also brought another big drop on Wall Street, leaving stock prices on track for their worst January since 2009.

On Monday, the Dow Jones industrial average fell 208 points, or 1.3 percent, to 15,885. The S&P 500 and the Nasdaq Composite each fell 1.6 percent.

Most analysts are tying the stock market's swan dive to oil prices, which have been running at about $30 a barrel, roughly a quarter of what they were as recently as June 2014.

The huge decline in oil has led to energy stocks getting crushed, oil field workers being laid off and inflation estimates getting thrown out of windows. All of that has been troubling Wall Street.

And now there's a hint of rising pessimism in the broader economy, as reflected in the business economists' survey, released Monday. Just 47 percent of the economists reported rising sales at their companies during the fourth quarter of 2015, down from 51 percent who had seen improving sales in the October 2015 survey.

For the first time in three years, more than a quarter of those surveyed expect real gross domestic product to rise by only 2 percent or less in the coming year.

So yes, the survey found more gloom among a minority of economists. But most economists continue to point to the upside of cheap energy.

The share of NABE respondents who say their companies enjoyed cost declines bounced up to 28 percent this month, compared with 22 percent in October. That means those companies can better afford to give out raises and continue hiring.

Let's boil it down. Here's the optimists' take: Workers are getting raises at a time of robust hiring and bargains at the gas station. Meanwhile, most companies are benefiting from lower costs, which will allow them to upgrade their workforces.

"If your input costs are going down, you can afford to pay up to either keep people or attract more talented ones," said Jim Smith, chief economist at Parsec Financial in Asheville, N.C., and one of the economists on a NABE teleconference Monday.

And here's the pessimists' view:

More oil comes from U.S. producers. In the past, cheaper oil hit harder at producers in the Middle East and elsewhere. Now that the United States is such a huge producer of oil, lower prices hurt U.S. oil field workers and investments.

The stock market turmoil reflects "the fact that the United States is a net producer in oil now versus a net consumer," James Stanley, currency analyst at DailyFX, said.

Another problem is that supercheap energy is making inflation so low that it's throwing off predictions about what the Federal Reserve will be doing next. Last month, the Fed took steps to nudge up short-term interest rates to tamp down inflation.

But not much inflation is materializing, and interest rates on many securities are staying low. For example, on Monday, yields on 10-year Treasury notes fell three basis points to 2.02 percent. That's adding to a sense of uncertainty at a time when China is experiencing slowing growth and currency turmoil.

Later this week, economists and investors may get a better sense of who's placing smarter bets, the optimists or the pessimists. This week brings the government's first estimate of fourth-quarter U.S. growth as well as scores of earnings reports from companies in the S&P. And the Fed's policymakers start their two-day meeting on Tuesday.

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