Beyond Today's Chaos Are Tomorrow's Investing Opportunities

Libya refugee
Libya refugee

Wall Street tends to lurch from one crisis to the next. Whether it's inflation,deflation or an overblown sovereign debt crisis, there always seems to be plenty to spook markets dominated by famously short-term traders.

Escalating violence in Libya is the latest cause for panic. Oil prices have spiked in recent days as traders fear that growing chaos in the region could cause a major disruption in supply.

Part of the apprehension is justified. Libya, after all, is a midsize player in the oil markets. And given that country's fragmented loyalties, even the ouster of dictator Moammar Gadhafi would still leave another set of challenges unresolved for the country.

But beyond the current Libyan chaos, there's plenty of cause for optimism at home. And investors with a longer-term view of the markets should consider the ongoing uncertainty caused by events in the Middle East as a potential opportunity to buy stocks.

The ISM Data's Good News

Oil jitters may be obscuring growing evidence that the U.S. economic recovery is picking up further steam. The country's manufacturing sector has been growing strongly, thanks to booming exports, and signs of robust job creation also continue to build.

The recently released ISM index data showed the manufacturing composite index clocking in at its highest level since May 2004, and it marked "a modest acceleration to already robust activity," analysts at Ned Davis research wrote in a client note this week.

But the most impressive gains may have been posted where it matters the most: employment.

At 64.5, the ISM employment component came in at its highest level since January 1973. That implied an increase of 70,000 factory workers for the month, the biggest gains in 21 years, excluding the return of striking autoworkers in August 1998, the Ned Davis analysts noted.

A Refreshing Change

As some analysts had predicted early on, booming overseas growth is leading to an export and manufacturing renaissance in the U.S.. At 62.5, the ISM index's export component is at record highs, and "ISM noted exports were driving new orders and production," Ned Davis analysts wrote.

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Given the drubbing that the U.S. manufacturing sector has endured over the past decade, it's refreshing to see it lead the economic recovery. Indeed, focusing on manufacturing may actually be yielding too strong a reading of the U.S. economy's strength, ironically enough.

"Historically, the February PMI [purchasing managers' index, which is part of the ISM manufacturing index] corresponds to 6.4% real GDP growth, although we think that overstates the health of the underlying economy and reflects more of the recovery in manufacturing and exports," analyst at Ned Davis Research wrote.

Traders might be fretting about oil, but other investors with long-term time horizons are also sounding optimistic notes.

Where the Farsighted Are Looking

Legendary investor Warren Buffett had an upbeat assessment of the U.S. economy this week. Looking across Berkshire Hathaway's companies, Buffett -- who's looking for big acquisitions again -- said growth has finally gotten to the point where businesses needed to start hiring. So far, Buffett said, businesses had been able to simply make do with less labor.

Buffett's inside view of Berkshire's businesses meshes extremely well with the macroeconomic data being circulated this week. Companies like machine-tool makers and semiconductor component manufacturers with exposure to broad swaths of the overall economy are doing particularly well, Buffett said.

As traders focus on the day-to-day fluctuations in the price of oil, more farsighted investors might want to look at the big picture and wade in instead.