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Could it be? More growth in the U.S. economy than expected?

It looks increasingly possible. If until recently I was looking for a growth rate of "muddle through," now I'm anticipating something like "muddle through plus" for the rest of 2012 and into 2013.

In numbers, that means I now think the U.S. economy has a good chance to grow faster in the first quarter of 2013 than the 1.6% consensus among economists surveyed by Reuters. And to better the 2.1% growth forecast in the second quarter of next year. Not by much, mind you. The 2.5% top in the Federal Reserve's long-term growth forecast for the United States probably will continue to elude us. And a 2% or 2.25% growth rate is pitiful for a recovery from a recession --or even a bounce from a slowdown from a recovery from a recession.

There's nothing here to get giddy about; 2% instead of 1.6% isn't going to send job growth rocketing or make stressed consumers suddenly feel flush. At 2% or 2.25% growth, people are still going to be looking for bargains and watching dimes, if not pennies.

But even this kind of very modest improvement will change the investment landscape -- and it should be reflected in your portfolio. Let's talk about how.

image: Jim Jubak

Jim Jubak

A slow-growth portfolio

I'm not talking about so much growth that I'd go out and load up on cyclical stocks, those most sensitive to the economy, or on high price-to-earnings-ratio growth rockets. The recovery from the global financial crisis hasn't been that kind of recovery. And I don't think this bump-up in growth will change that.

But it does mean that consumer and retail companies that offer the right combination of savings, service and quality could be the stars of the stock market over the next six to eight months. Stocks that fit that description don't necessarily trip off investors' tongues, and they don't have an automatic place in most portfolios. But at this juncture, with the economy looking like it might be better than "muddling," I think it's worth taking a look around at potential candidates for a "slow growth" portfolio.

Before we get to individual stocks -- and I'm going to give you five -- let's take a brief survey of why things might be ever so slightly better than they seem.

Home, auto sales look strong -- sort of

One place to start is "surprise" indexes, such as the Bloomberg Economic Surprise Index and the Citigroup Economic Surprise Index. The Bloomberg index compares 38 economic indicators with analyst predictions. The index was up on Oct. 12 to a minus 0.06, from the low for 2012, earned in July, of minus 0.42. The Citigroup index is even more positive -- if you can say that about an index scored in negative numbers. In its Oct. 12 report, the index rose to a minus 49.4 from its low of a minus 65.3 on July 19. (The negative numbers suggest the analysts have been too pessimistic.)

Where are the surprises in the economy? One place is sales of previously owned homes, which climbed 7.8% in August, to a two-year high. Another is the S&P/Case-Shiller index of home prices in 20 cities, which is up 8% since March. Or auto sales, which reached an annual rate of 14.9 million in September. That's the fastest pace since 2008.

This is good news, but let's keep it in context. We're talking about two-year highs that compare current levels to those of 2010. Or a 14.9 million annual rate that looks really, really good against an annual rate of auto sales that bottomed in the 9 million-to-10 million range in 2009. That 14.9 million number, however, looks pitiful against the 17.6 million annual rate of January 2006. That was BGFC -- before the global financial crisis.

The single biggest reason to think that growth might be better than expected is the pent-up demand in the housing sector. When workers were afraid of losing their jobs, when families were cutting back on expenses, when neighbors were losing their homes, demand for housing as housing -- that is, not as an investment or a financial asset -- was below historical trends.

For example, the rate of household formation had been remarkably steady from 1958 to 2007 at about 1.4 million new households a year, according to JPMorgan Chase. But in the three years following the global financial crisis, the rate in the United States fell to 500,000 a year. We all know why and how -- younger people without jobs, unable to find good-paying jobs or saddled with big debt moved in with their parents or doubled up with roommates. The rate of household formation has, however, doubled from that bottom, and it is likely to climb even higher as the rate returns to something near its historical trend.

The population didn't stop growing during the Great Recession, either. The fastest-growing demographics are the over-55s, who by and large already own homes, and the grandchildren of the baby boomers, who by and large don't. JPMorgan Chase estimates that the United States will need 6 million new housing units by 2017 to meet the demands of a larger population.

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