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NEW YORK CITY-Packed with a dizzying array of policies, the Obama Administration’s stimulus package has been criticized by some for being too far-reaching and by others for not doing enough to revive the stagnant economy. But panelists at yesterday’s Dow Jones Indexes/STOXX Ltd.’s luncheon here said that the plan is an essential step towards economic revitalization.

Analyzing the administration’s actions in the past 64 days since the inauguration, the panel agreed that its initiatives may help stabilize unemployment rates, the housing and financial sectors, as well as encourage investment in energy efficiency and public infrastructure.

“The current administration has taken unprecedented actions to restart growth and help rebuild the economy and financial markets,” said Gus Faucher, director of macroeconomics for Moody’s Economy.com. The locally based economist presented a bleak picture of the current state of the economy, noting a 10% decline in retail sales, 11% drop in industrial production, 21% fall in house prices and cumulative job losses nearing 4.5 million. Faucher anticipates the unemployment rate to peak at close to 10% halfway through 2010, but stressed, “Without the stimulus plan, the unemployment rate would reach 12% in 2011.”

The rising tide of joblessness, the growing capital shortfall, the global recession and housing are the main factors plaguing the economy, said Faucher. While the government’s plan will not single-handedly put an end to these problems, he suggested it would mitigate the intensity of the impact. The Federal Reserve’s extension of the Termed Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility, in particular, is an unprecedented effort towards shoring up the financial system, Faucher said.

The economist forecasted the bottoming out of the housing and stock markets before the start of the second quarter. Foreclosures, he said, should peak during the third quarter and unemployment will hit a floor in the first quarter of 2010. As a result, he said, a self-sustaining expansion should begin late in the third quarter of next year.

With details finally emerging on the Treasury’s public-private program to purchase toxic assets, Faucher of Moody’s said he is eager to see how the plan plays out. But he is not convinced that it will be enough to temper the troubled market.

Meanwhile, though the administration listed increased transportation funding as a priority, many advocates were generally disappointed with the recovery bill’s allotment of $50 million for infrastructure projects. But there are greater issues ahead that will shape the future of infrastructure investment, said Craig Noble, portfolio manager at Brookfield Redding LLC. “The stimulus package has been important for infrastructure, but it’s not a game changer,” he said.

Indeed, financing shovel-ready projects, like upgrading toll roads, will have an immediate impact on the economy, but Noble pointed out that more extensive projects would benefit private investors the most. “Longer-term projects that are also priorities of the Obama Administration, such as extending the electricity transmission grid, are well suited to private sector investment. This will translate into higher growth trends for owners and operators of infrastructure assets,” he said.

Noble pointed out that there are several pieces of legislation, including the reauthorization of the federal transportation program, which are slated to go before Congress this year. In particular, the Surface Transportation Funding Program, which provides flexible financing for highway and transit projects, may be one of the most significant variables in addressing infrastructure spending.

“Policy initiatives, such as the focus on green power are positives, but the real change will come from reshaping funding models and the expanded role of the private sector.” The infrastructure class offers a unique and compelling investment case, with trillions of dollars needed to be spent across the globe in the coming years, Noble said.

“The stimulus bill illustrates both the dire need for infrastructure spending and the attractive multiplier affect that infrastructure spending has,” he said. The portfolio manager explained that the sector could generate jobs, a point that has not been lost on the administration.

Along the lines of economic growth drivers, the burgeoning cap-and-trade market has tremendous potential, said Dr. Richard Sandor, chairman and CEO of Chicago Climate Exchange. Much to his delight, the administration has largely linked the market with energy efficiency and the easing of climate change to address environmental challenges.

“This integrated approach is convergent with our belief that the benefits of regulated exchanges that convey price transparency, price discovery, risk mitigation and standardization will be instrumental to the achievement of these important national goals,” he said.

Sandor predicts, “The 21st century will be the era of the commoditization of air and water.” He believes that before the close of the fourth quarter legislation will be introduced to address the growing carbon trading market. Sandor said there is a huge amount of capital flowing into the green sector and there is the belief that the value proposition does exist.

The credit crisis has established the right to emit as a source of funding, mainly in Europe, but some activity is emerging in the US. Some utilities are selling their rights to emit now and simultaneously buying futures, Sandor explained. As a result, the Dow is looking to create carbon indices in and around public goods. The Environmental Protection Agency has already hinted at the creation of a registry to classify the quantity of emission.

“We are just in the first inning of a vast structural change with regards to power and pollution,” he said. “There will be jobs generated from this as the Obama Administration moves forward.”

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