(Reuters) - Counting container ships plying the high seas and air cargo takeoffs is one way to track the outlook for the global economy. Both measures point to weak growth in the months ahead but no severe storms.
Solid employment gains in the United States that pushed the jobless rate down to its lowest level in almost three years and a stabilizing of business activity in December even suggest global growth could firm at the start of 2012 -- a welcome contrast to the gloomy predictions at the close of last year.
Europe continues to present the biggest risk. Recovery could be undermined if Italy's debt woes worsen or political discord among European Union leaders threatens the viability of monetary union. A clutch of EU meetings this week will put the euro zone back in the spotlight.
Rising oil prices on Iran nuclear tensions also cast a shadow.
But right now, the economic data is providing some reassurance that a gradual strengthening in the United States will underpin slow but steady growth globally.
"I guess we have a hunch that things will start to go a little bit better than expected, or at least not dramatically down," said Tal Shapsa, global economist for Barclays Capital, which expects industrial output to stabilize in the months ahead.
A global factory index compiled by JPMorgan ticked upward unexpectedly in December to 53 from 52 the prior month, led by a better U.S. performance and a slowing in the pace of contraction in China and Europe. A services sector index also strengthened.
Shipping measures, a forward indicator of trade flows, likewise have steadied. The Baltic Dry Goods Index .BADI, which tumbled in November, has leveled out though it remains stuck at crisis-era lows. It provides an early window into global demand by measuring shipping costs for iron ore, cement, grain and other raw commodities.
Similarly a basket of global commodity prices, as measured by the Reuters-Jefferies CRB index .CRB, has ticked upward since mid-December, even after adjusting for the recent rise in oil, suggesting some of the late 2011 pessimism about global demand is dissipating.
Air freight traffic, which the International Air Transport Association said picked up in November by 0.5 percent after months of contraction, also looks to have firmed in December. FedEx and UPS reported strong activity last month on shipping of consumer electronic goods from Asia, such as IPhone 4 models, and robust online shopping in the holiday season.
DOLLOPS OF CAUTION
FedEx is forecasting moderate economic growth in 2012 but it adds a dose of caution. Chief Financial Officer Alan Graf told analysts last month that volatility of trade flows is "as high as it's ever been and we think it's going to be the new normal." Business inventories are tight as companies reduce excess stock, he said, a sign of uncertainty.
Truckmakers' production plans, another barometer of expectations, show similar caution. Sweden's Scania (SCVb.ST) is cutting output this year by 15 percent due to recession in Europe and uncertainty over Brazil. Volvo, (VOLVb.ST) its top competitor, also has cut European production and sees demand slowing in Brazil and in the Chinese construction equipment market.
"There is a lot of caution in the air right now. We had a lot of false starts to the recovery (in 2010 and in 2011). The recovery is positive but just barely, and is it sustainable?" said Charles Clowdis, an economist at IHS Global Insight.
Trade data due out this week will probably confirm the global slowdown of late 2011.
Growth in Chinese imports is expected to have slipped to 17 percent year-over-year in December from 22.1 percent the prior month, while export growth held steady around 13 percent. Japan's current account surplus, due on Wednesday, is expected to have narrowed sharply, falling 74.7 percent in November, as manufacturers battle yen strength.
In contrast, data on the U.S. trade gap for November on Friday is seen little changed at around $45 billion. More attention will go to the retail sales report for December on Thursday. Early reports indicate modest spending over the holiday season for a 0.3 percent gain.
For IFR's forecasts for the week ahead in U.S. economic data, please click on: here
Overhanging the data, however, are the travails of the euro zone.
Shuttle diplomacy resumes with French President Nicholas Sarkozy meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday, and Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti heading to Berlin on Wednesday, the same day the EU monetary commissioner discusses Eurobonds. Then, the European Central Bank holds its rates meeting on Thursday and EU and International Monetary Fund officials head to Greece on Saturday.
The unsettled situation in the euro zone gives pause to Alan Krueger, chief economist at the White House, who otherwise welcomes the signs of economic resiliency. "Going forward, we certainly face some headwinds from Europe, and possibly elsewhere."