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The Economy’s Health; The Death of LivingSocial; And The Marvel of Musk.

How fast did the U.S. economy grow in the third quarter? We’ll get our first glimpse tomorrow.

The initial GDP number for the third quarter will be revised, but it’s significant as the last big economic report before Election Day – and, potentially, as further confirmation of a Fed rate hike.

We all know that economic growth is positive but tepid. But some indications point to a better-than-expected number, north of 3%, which would be the first quarter above 1.5% since last year. Trade, consumer spending and housing starts were all fairly strong in recent months. Corporate earnings so far have been better than expected, too.

On the other hand, the higher dollar has constrained exports and productivity growth has slowed, and possibly even declined this year. These negatives are part of the reason GDP growth has been so sluggish.

Tomorrow’s number will tell us, and the Fed, how the tug of war is playing out.

Did They Get a Discount?

Remember the “daily deals” electronic coupon craze that started about a decade ago? LivingSocial, Groupon and countless copycat services would send you an email everyday allow you to pay upfront for discounts at specific restaurants, hotels, stores and services. These “deal” coupons were crazy popular, especially as we were still emerging from the Great Recession.

These companies became business darlings. LivingSocial, headquartered in my hometown of Washington, D.C., even opened a (completely unnecessary) storefront at which it hosted happy hours frequented by hipsters and techies.

At the time, many so-called experts predicted that these companies’ fast growth would vault them into the stratosphere of technology companies. Roughly 99% of these articles used the phrases “game changer” and “paradigm shift” to describe electronic coupons’ effect on consumer choices. At its peak, LivingSocial was valued at $6 billion.

That lasted all of about two years. Like many fads, the coupon craze became un-hip. Consumers started to realize that they were losing more on unused coupons than they were saving on the ones they used.

The other shoe fell yesterday. Groupon announced it was buying LivingSocial for a price that “isn’t material.” Groupon’s share price fell 19% on the news. Guess investors aren’t too excited about the synergies associated with this mighty merger.

The lesson: Don’t believe the hype.

America is rightly famous for innovation. We’ve invented more products and services, even entire industries, than any other country. But it’s a hit or miss proposition. Every fad isn’t a trend; every trend doesn’t last.

Tesla in the Black

Speaking of trendy companies, Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA) actually reported earnings yesterday. The company made a profit the first time in three years, posting $21.9 million in profit thanks in large part to sales of “clean car credits” to companies that don’t meet emissions standards.

With $3 billion in cash on its balance sheet, Tesla’s earnings are almost beside the point as it continues to ramp up. Analysts say the positive earnings take the pressure off CEO Elon Musk as he continues to unveil his ambitious plans (including manned flights to Mars).

Unlike Groupon and LivingSocial, Tesla is actually making something – in fact, three things that are sorely needed: cleaner cars, cleaner energy and cheaper rockets. But Elon Musk is a risk-taker, which means he could very well fail. This quarter’s report doesn’t prove the case one way or another, but it’s a step in the right direction.


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