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It's easy to forget, with all the attention lavished on Europe's debt crisis and our own, that the U.S. economy is actually humming along at a nice clip.

In the third quarter, a period marred by the debt-ceiling debate, the loss of America's AAA credit rating and a whole lot of stock market volatility, the gross domestic product expanded at a 2.5% annual rate.

If you correct for a drawdown of inventories and focus just on domestic purchases, growth came in at an impressive 4.1% -- the second-best quarterly result since the recession ended. In the process, the economy swelled beyond its old 2007 pre-recession peak. That's the line between "recovery" and "expansion."

Yet most Americans remain convinced the "recession" never ended.

Clearly, the spoils have gone to the corporate sector this time around. Business profits keep hitting record highs as companies sit on trillions of dollars in cash reserves rather than hire or build. Wages at the top end have soared; the rest have lost ground. Working Americans (and those looking for work) are getting little help from Wall Street or the government.

But there are a number of companies growing themselves and the economy in very positive ways; I'm taking a look at five of them this week. They represent attractive opportunities for long-term investors, and they represent the two healthiest areas of our economy -- the areas creating jobs.

Before we get to them, let me explain why I think we should be cheering the corporate sector instead of jeering it. And why the two new areas of growth they represent -- business investment and high-end retail -- will replace exports as the main driver of growth going forward, should the trend continue.

Cheers, not jeers

A lot of you will dismiss the idea that the economy is rebounding. It doesn't feel like it. Nor does it feel like the upside businesses are enjoying is being shared. The broad measure of unemployment stands at 16.2%. Factoring out government payments like unemployment benefits and Social Security, household incomes have recouped only one-third of their recession losses.

This disparity in fortunes, and the questionable connection between the government and corporate lobbyists, is fueling the Occupy Wall Street movement.

According to Morgan Stanley analyst Gerard Minack, that's because "aggressive government stimulus meant that the corporate sector did not have to 'pay' for the recovery." But workers and their salaries were squeezed by the ongoing pressures on the labor market from technological advances and competition from cheap foreign labor.

A big increase in demand for exports, which allowed U.S. companies to sell to fast-growing markets like China, contributed to the business rebound as well. In fact, exports have been one of the few bright spots during the recovery. While the economy is still 2.2% smaller than it should be, based on the average of the five most-recent recoveries, the growth contribution from exports is running 0.7% of GDP above average. That's been a boon to export-oriented companies like Caterpillar (CAT).

As terrible as the situation is for so many, with head winds hitting the economy anew (the looming deadline for congressional supercommittee budget cuts and the mess in Europe), we need for the corporate sector to remain strong to keep the economic expansion going. This is especially true considering the government's budget woes. Growth will lower the deficit.

Yet, there's trouble ahead: While third-quarter earnings have been solid, profit margins are beginning to narrow. The eurozone and parts of Asia are stumbling back into recession. And Minack believes that while earnings have bounced back strongly as the economy rebounded, they could very well collapse in even a mild recession.

In other words, the economy's one pillar of support, corporate strength, is looking newly vulnerable. Let's hope that companies like these five, which operate in the two most-robust areas of the economy, can keep things going.

Image: Anthony Mirhaydari - MSN Money

Anthony Mirhaydari

Businesses get back to tech

I've written before about how a lack of investment by corporate America, even for basic maintenance of existing equipment and machinery, was causing the productive capacity of the country to shrink at a record pace. CEOs were paralyzed by fear and obsessed with cost cutting to hit their quarterly profit targets. Far more jobs were cut than the recession justified. And capital investment fell by more than twice the historical average, given the depth of the recession.

But that's changing. As you can see in the chart above, U.S. manufacturing capacity is starting to rise again as factories respond to growth by adding new machinery and equipment. This domestic demand, driven by a need to make up for lost time and revamp production lines, is why final sales to domestic purchasers jumped 4.1% annualized last quarter.

Drilling into the numbers, fixed, nonresidential investment (essentially, capital spending by businesses) jumped at a 16.3% annualized rate, building on the 10.3% jump in the second quarter. Spending on equipment and software was the main driver.

This comes as no surprise to Credit Suisse equity strategist Andrew Garthwaite, who turned bullish on business spending -- software in particular -- in late July. While some of the cream has been taken off the top, as it were, the situation still looks very good, despite a recent Credit Suisse executive survey in which 40% of respondents indicated they will cut spending in the next six months.

Here's the kicker: Things like travel, advertising and commercial vehicles are the low-hanging fruit respondents are ready to cut first. Spending on information technology looks immune to economic fears with a majority of respondents indicating increased spending here.

And if things turn out better than expected, information technology will get the highest share of corporate spending. Other attractive features of the IT group include the ability to protect profit margins in high-inflation environments and defensive characteristics (these stocks as a group outperformed in the 2007-2008 downturn).

Three standouts in this area are services expert IBM (IBM), software and server titan Oracle (ORCL) and business productivity software giant Microsoft (MSFT). (Microsoft owns and publishes MSN Money.)

If the sector is to keep growing, it will be in large part because of these three companies and the productivity gains they generate.

IBM, one of the world's largest IT companies, with operations in 170 countries and an offering of software, hardware and services, has been in the news lately for the announcement of its first female CEO, Virginia Rometty. But it deserves attention for much more. It's been the top-performing Dow Jones Industrial Average ($INDU) component so far this year, up 29%. And it's constantly adjusting its product offerings to focus on noncommoditized sections of the industry in an effort to protect its bottom line. (For more on IBM, which is celebrating its centennial, check out this film celebrating its centennial, check out this film celebrating its achievements.)

Oracle has been able to use its dominant position in the database software market to branch out into hardware through acquisitions in a strategy that mimics IBM's success. The company commands a 45% share of the enterprise database market, compared with 21% apiece for IBM and Microsoft. Much of its business is providing software-license updates, worth 42% of its total revenue and carrying gross margins of around 90%. A recently announced $1.5 billion acquisition of software-as-a-service provider RightNow Technologies will allow the company to move into cloud software services without disrupting its traditional business.

Microsoft enjoyed a solid fiscal first quarter, thanks to robust sales of its flagship Office and server products aimed at corporate users. Sales of its consumer-focused Windows and Windows Live products were flat. The company is pushing hard to use the allure of low-cost cloud computing to push its new Web-based productivity applications to small- and medium-sized businesses.

Consumers spending again

Just when the American shopper was left for dead, trapped under a pile of bad mortgage debt and stagnant wages, people tapped their savings and warmed up their credit cards in the third quarter: Spending jumped 2.4%, driven by durable goods and services, thanks to a steady drop in the savings rate from 5.3% in June to 3.6% in September. Service-sector consumption had its best quarter since the middle of 2006, a time that marked the peak for the housing bubble. On the other hand, the savings rate fell to the lowest since the end of 2007.

Can this continue?

Barclays Capital equity strategist Barry Knapp believes spending will be "resilient but capped" as the positive effects of greater wealth, stable home prices and lower interest payments are offset by debt repayment, mortgage foreclosures, high energy prices and stagnant wages.

In response, Knapp recommends focusing on high-end luxury retailers and service providers, companies that have outperformed their mid- and lower-tier competitors. Their customers are less sensitive to energy prices and are less reliant on housing wealth. A recent Consumer Expenditure Survey by Barclays supports this thesis: It found that those with incomes above $157,000 account for more than 40% of apparel and services spending. Moreover, necessities like fuel and groceries represent a smaller portion of total income for these people, so they are less affected by inflation in those areas.

Citigroup analysts have also been recommending investors focus on companies catering to high-end consumers as they power the economy forward. Their top picks include my two remaining companies pushing the economy ahead: consumer electronics icon Apple (AAPL) and the omnipresent provider of daily personal indulgence by the cup, Starbucks (SBUX).

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Starbucks has enjoyed a remarkable turnaround since the recession ended -- despite frequent warnings that a new austerity would do away with $4 cups of coffee. The company has improved the service and the food at its flagship stores while expanding its affordable options, selling Via instant coffee in grocery stores and Seattle's Best Coffee at Subway and Burger King locations. Same-store sales surged 9% in the fiscal fourth quarter, the best result in six quarters, thanks to a 10% jump in the United States.

There's not much to say about Apple that hasn't already been said. But here are a few interesting facts from analysts at Citigroup:

  • 70% of the company's profits are derived from the iPhone, though it has only a 19% share of the global handset market.
  • The iPad's market share is running around 70% and is expected to remain high, with an expected $100 price cut to fend off new, cheaper competition.
  • The company has only five Apple stores in China versus 245 in the United States.

Both companies are likely to be continued beneficiaries of the post-recession spending trends identified by Credit Suisse economists. People aren't really spending on large discretionary items like cars and RVs. Yet they're shelling out for small items like personal technology products and books, and for events like movies, theme park visits and ballgames.

So while businesses and executive are making and spending the big bucks, people are coping with the new economic reality by splurging on new gadgets and warm drinks while losing themselves in fantasy. I can't say I blame them.

At the time of publication, Anthony Mirhaydari did not own or control shares of any company mentioned in this column.

Be sure to check out Anthony's new money management service, Mirhaydari Capital Management, and his investment newsletter, the Edge. A free, two-week trial subscription to the newsletter has been extended to MSN Money readers. Click here to sign up. Mirhaydari can be contacted at anthony@edgeletter.com and followed on Twitter at @EdgeLetter. You can view his current stock picks here. Feel free to comment below.