Economic Activity Eased During the End of Summer: September 25 – 29

Personal spending and overall economic activity both slowed in August. Here are the five things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending September 29.

#1Personal spending paused in August. “Real” personal consumption expenditures (PCE) slipped 0.1 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis during the month, the first monthly decline in the inflation-adjusted measure of consumer spending since January. Real spending on goods fell 0.5 percent (also its largest drop since January), as spending on durable goods dropped 1.0 percent while that on nondurables slowed 0.2 percent. Real spending on services edged up 0.1 percent. Over the past year, real PCE has grown 2.5 percent, with 12-month comparables of +3.1 percent and +2.2 percent for spending on goods and services, respectively. The same Bureau of Economic Analysis report finds nominal (not adjusted for inflation) personal income had increased 0.2 percent during August while nominal disposable income grew 0.1 percent and real disposable income slipped 0.1 percent. Real disposable income has risen 1.2 percent over the past year. The personal saving rate was at +3.6 percent, matching July’s rate. The report’s closely watched measure of inflation—the PCE deflator—grew 0.2 percent during the month and had increased 1.2 percent over the past year. Net of energy and food, the core PCE deflator inched up 0.1 percent during the month and had risen 1.3 percent since August 2016. Both 12-month comparables were well below the Federal Reserve’s two-percent interest rate target.Change in Personal Consumption Expenditures 2016-7 092917

#2There was another small upward revision to Q2 economic growth. The Bureau of Economic Analysis upgraded its estimate of second-quarter 2017 growth in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from a 3.0 percent seasonally adjusted annualized gain to a 3.1 percent increase (the original Q3 estimate had a 2.6 percent increase). The small upward revision was the result of higher than previously believed levels of private sector inventory accumulation. This was the fastest month of economic growth since the first quarter of 2015. Positive contributors to Q3 GDP growth were personal consumption expenditures (PCE, adding 224-basis points to GDP growth), nonresidential fixed investment (+54 basis points), exports (+21-basis points), federal government spending (+13-basis points), and the change in private inventories (+12-basis points). Dragging down GDP growth were fixed residential investment (housing, costing 30-basis points in GDP growth), imports (-22-basis points), and state/local government expenditures (-16-basis points). Corporate profits from current production edged up 0.7 percent during the quarter to a SAAR of $2.123 trillion.

#3However, economic data suggest economic growth slowed in August. The Chicago Fed National Activity Index (CFNAI) fell by 34-basis points to a reading of -0.31. The CFNAI is a weighted index of 85 economic measures indexed so that a reading of 0.00 would be indicative of economic growth at the historical average. Hence, August’s reading is consistent with below average economic activity. This was the CFNAI’s lowest reading since May 2016. Only 35 of the 85 index components made a positive contribution to the CFNAI, but 45 components improved from their July’s readings. Among the four broad categories of components, two made negative contributions to the CFNAI: those associated with production (-0.36 contribution) and personal consumption/housing (-0.06). Boosting the CFNAI were components tied to sales/orders/inventories (+0.06) and employment (+0.05). The CFNAI’s three-month moving average was negative for the first time since March as it shed four-basis points to a reading of -0.04.

#4Consumer sentiment chilled in the autumn air of September. The Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index inched back 6/10ths of a point to a seasonally adjusted reading of 119.8 (1985=100). The index of current conditions fell back by 2.3 points to 146.1 while the expectations index added a half point to 102.2. A slightly smaller percentage of survey respondents characterized current business conditions as being “good” (33.9 percent, off 6/10th of a percentage point) while a few more said that they were “bad” (up 6/10ths of a percentage point to 13.8 percent). Twice as many respondents expected business conditions would improve over the next six months than believe they will deteriorate (19.8 percent versus 9.9 percent). The press release noted that sentiment weakened in both hurricane impacted Texas and Florida, but also that the overall results indicate “the economy will continue expanding at its current pace.”

The Index of Consumer Sentiment from the University of Michigan lost 1.7 points to a seasonally adjusted reading of 95.1 (1966Q1=100). Whereas the measure remained 3.9 points above its September 2016 reading, it has stayed within a tight four-point range since February. The current conditions index added 8/10ths of a point to 111.7 (September 2016: 104.2) while the expectations index shed 3.3 points to 84.4 (September 2016: 82.7). The press release stated that confidence has remained resilient despite “a long list of issues that could have derailed the overall level of consumer confidence, including the unprecedented partisan divide, North Korea, Charlottesville, and the hurricanes.” The release also noted that the results were consistent with consumer spending growing “2.6% in 2017 and in the 1st half of 2018.”

#5Durable goods orders rebounded in August. The Census Bureau estimates new orders for manufactured durable goods grew 1.7 percent during the month to a seasonally adjusted $232.8 billion. Nearly every month, the headline number is heavily influenced by transportation goods orders (and, specifically, aircraft orders), which tend to be quite volatile month-to-month. New orders for civilian aircraft surged 44.8 percent, leading to a 4.9 percent overall gain in transportation goods (new orders for automobiles increased 1.5 percent). Net of transportation goods, new orders grew 0.2 percent during the month, which included gains for communications equipment (+4.0 percent), machinery (+0.3 percent), primary metals (+0.3 percent). On the flipside, orders fell for computers (-1.3 percent), fabricated metal products (-0.4 percent), and electrical equipment/appliances (-0.1 percent). New orders for non-defense durable goods gained 2.2 percent during August while those of non-defense, non-aircraft capital goods (a proxy for business investment) rose 0.4 percent. 

Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:
Jobless Claims (week ending September 23, 2017, First-Time Claims, seasonally adjusted): 272,000 (+12,000 vs. previous week; +19,000 vs. the same week a year earlier). 4-week moving average: 277,750 (+8.9% vs. the same week a year earlier).
New Home Sales (August 2017, New Residential Sales, seasonally adjusted annualized rate): 560,000 (-3.4% vs. July 2017, -1.2% vs. August 2016).
Pending Home Sales (August 2017, Index (2001=100), seasonally adjusted): 106.3 (-2.6% vs. July 2017, -2.6% vs. August 2016).
Agricultural Prices (August 2017, Prices Received by Farmers (Index: 2011=100)): 93.4 (-2.0% vs. July 2017, +4.1% vs. August 2016).

The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Kevin’s current and previous employers. No endorsements are implied.

The Fed Is About to Normalize…Very Slowly: September 18 – 22

The Federal Reserve takes a small step forward while the housing market takes a small step backward. Here are the five things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending September 22.

#1The Fed will begin the next stage of tightening next month. The policy statement released following last week’s meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) noted that labor market “has continued to strengthen” and that “economic activity has been rising moderately so far this year.” At the same time, inflation remained below the Federal Reserve’s two-percent target and wage pressures remained weak. The statement also noted that Hurricanes Harvey and Irma may lead to some short-term economic disruptions but “past experience suggests that the storms are unlikely to materially alter the course of the national economy over the medium term.” With all of that in mind, the voting FOMC members voted to keep the fed funds target rate at a range between 1.00 and 1.25 percent. But the news from the policy statement was that the Fed would begin to normalize its balance sheet starting in October by shedding $10 billion of its holdings during the month. This is a small first move—the Fed’s balance sheet was at nearly 4.46 trillion in mid-September.

The other headline in the release comes from the updated economic forecasts from the FOMC members. The median forecast suggests that there will be one more quarter-point hike in the fed funds target rate this year (presumably at the December meeting). While was surprising to some analysts, this would be consistent with the comment above that the voting members do not believe the recent hurricanes will have a lasting detrimental impact on economic growth. In fact, the median Gross Domestic Product (GDP) forecast for 2017 increased from +2.2 percent (as reported in the previously released forecast this summer) to +2.4 percent. Holding firm was the forecasted 2017 unemployment  (4.3 percent) and inflation (+1.6 percent) rate. Looking forward, the FOMC members currently anticipate there being three rate hikes (a quarter point each) in 2018.FOMC Economic Forecast 092217

#2Existing home sales slipped for a third straight month. The National Association of Realtors reports that sales of previously owned homes decreased 1.7 percent during August to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR) of 5.35 million units. This was the third straight monthly decline and the measure’s lowest reading in a year. The sales decline was isolated to both the South (-5.7 percent) and West (-4.8 percent) as sales grew in both the Northeast (+10.8 percent) and Midwest (+2.4 percent). The press release lays blame on “inadequate levels of available inventory and the upward pressure” and on rising home prices. There were 1.88 million homes available for sale at the end of August, down 2.1 percent from July, 6.5 percent from a year earlier, and the lowest inventory reading since March. The median sales price of homes sold has grown 5.6 percent over the past year to $253,500.

#3Housing starts also slowed a bit during August. Per the Census Bureau, housing starts slipped 0.8 percent during the month to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR) of 1.180 million units (+1.4. percent versus August 2016). Single-family unit starts grew 1.6 percent during August. Starts increased in both the Midwest (+22.0 percent) and West (+4.0 percent) but lost ground in both the South (-7.9 percent) and Northeast (-5.8 percent). Looking towards the future, the SAAR of issued building permits jumped 5.7 percent during August to 1.300 million permits, although the rate of issued permits for single-family homes cooled 1.5 percent. The annualized rate of housing completions fell 10.2 percent during the month to 1.040 million units. This was 3.4 percent above the year-ago rate.

#4Homebuilder confidence remains firm if slightly nicked due to recent hurricanes. The National Association of Home Builders’ Housing Market Index shed three points during September to a seasonally adjusted reading of 64. This was the 39th straight month in which the index was above a reading of 50, indicating that a greater percentage of homebuilders see the housing market as being “good” rather than being “poor.” The index dropped by six points in the Midwest (59) and four points in the South (59) but increased in both the West (up two points to 79) and Northeast (up a point to 50). Losing four points each were measures of both current sales (70) and expected sales (73) of single-family homes. The index of traffic of prospective buyers lost one point to 47. While describing homebuilders’ confidence as being “on very firm ground,” the press release noted that Hurricanes Harvey and Irma “have intensified [builders’] concerns about the availability of labor and the cost of building materials.”

#5Forward-looking economic indicators suggest continued economic growth for the rest of the year. The Conference Board’s Leading Economic Indicators had a half point during August to a reading of 128.8 (2010=100). This was up 4.4 percent from its year-ago reading. Seven of the ten components to the leading indicators made positive contributions, led by housing building permits, the interest rate spread, and consumers’ expectations for business conditions. The coincident index was unchanged in August but was 1.9 percent above its August 2016 reading. A drop industrial production matched the positive impact of the coincident index’s three other components (nonfarm payrolls, personal income net of transfer payments, and manufacturing/trade sales). The lagging index added 4/10ths of a point to 125.2 (+2.5 percent versus August 2016). The press release noted that the data do not reflect the impact of recent hurricanes on the economy but also stated that “the underlying trends suggest that the current solid pace of growth should continue in the near term.”

Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:
Jobless Claims (week ending September 16, 2017, First-Time Claims, seasonally adjusted): 259,000 (-23,000 vs. previous week; +7,000 vs. the same week a year earlier). 4-week moving average: 268,750 (+4.7% vs. the same week a year earlier).
Import Prices (August 2017, All Imports, not seasonally adjusted): +0.6% vs. July 2017, +2.1% vs. August 2016. Nonfuel Imports: +0.3% vs. July 2017, +1.0% vs. August 2016.
Export Prices (August 2017, All Exports, not seasonally adjusted): +0.6% vs. July 2017, +2.3% vs. August 2016. Nonagricultural exports: +0.7% vs. July 2017, +2.4% vs. August 2016.
Treasury International Capital (July 2017, Net Domestic Securities Purchased by Foreigners, not seasonally adjusted): vs. June 2017: +$5.1 billion, vs. July 2016: +64.9 billion.
FHFA House Price Index (July 2017, Purchase-Only Index, seasonally adjusted): +0.2% vs. June 2017, +6.3% vs. July 2016.

The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Kevin’s current and previous employers. No endorsements are implied.

Industrial Production and Retail Sales Take a Pause: September 11 – 15

Even though the storm hit Texas during the final days of August, the impact of Hurricane Harvey was already showing up in economic data. Here are the five things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending September 15.

#1Hurricane Harvey slowed industrial production at the end of August. The Federal Reserve indicates that industrial production fell for the first time in seven months with a 0.9 percent decline. Manufacturing output dropped 0.3 percent after holding steady in July. The Fed estimates both measures dropped by 3/4ths of a percentage point due to storm-related effects. Durable goods output grew 0.3 percent during the month while that of nondurables fell 0.9 percent. Automobile and aerospace production boosted the former while drops in the output of chemicals and petroleum/coal products pulled down the latter. Also falling were outputs at utilities (-5.5 percent) and in mining (-0.8 percent), with the latter the result of large declines in oil and gas well drilling and servicing. Capacity utilization also fell, shedding 8/10ths of a percentage point to 76.1 percent (its lowest reading since March). Manufacturing sector capacity utilization dropped by 3/10ths of a percentage point to 75.3 percent.Industrial Production Aug17-091517.png

#2Retail sales slipped in August, although it is unclear how much of that drop was due to Harvey. The Census Bureau estimates U.S. retail and food services sales were at a seasonally adjusted $474.8 billion, off 0.2 percent from the previous month. Hurting the headline number was softer sales at auto dealers (and parts stores), which saw sales drop 1.6 percent. Net of auto dealers/parts stores, retail sales grew 0.2 percent—although this figure is pulled up by a 2.5 percent rise in gas station sales (largely due to higher gasoline prices). Sales also grew at furniture retailers (+0.4 percent), restaurants/bars (+0.3 percent), grocery stores (+0.3 percent), and general merchandisers (+0.2 percent). August was not a particularly good month for apparel retailers (-1.0 percent), electronics/appliance stores (-0.7 percent), building materials retailers (-0.5 percent), and department stores (-0.1 percent). The Census Bureau statement included comments about possible retail sales impacts resulting from Hurricane Harvey, noting that they received “indications from the companies that the hurricane had both positive and negative effects on their sales data while others indicated they were not impacted at all.”

#3Higher gasoline prices led to firmer consumer and wholesale prices in August. The Consumer Price Index (CPI) jumped 0.4 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis during the month, the largest single-month increase in the Bureau of Labor Statistics measure in seven months. Energy and shelter were responsible for much of the gain in consumer prices. Energy CPI jumped 2.8 percent, pulled up by a 6.3 percent gain in gasoline prices and a 2.9 percent increase in fuel oil. (Note that these figures largely do not reflect the impact of the sharp rise in gas prices caused refineries temporary closing along the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Harvey.) Food CPI inched up 0.1 percent. Net of energy and food, core CPI increased 0.2 percent, its largest single-month gain since February. Growing were prices for shelter (+0.5 percent), transportation services (+0.4 percent), medical care services (+0.2 percent), and apparel (+0.1 percent). Prices fell for used cars (-0.2 percent) and medical care commodities (-0.1 percent) while new car prices did not change from July. Over the past year, CPI has grown 1.9 percent while the core CPI measure has increased 1.7 percent.

The final demand Producer Price Index (PPI) grew 0.2 percent during August following a 0.1 percent decline in July. Net of food, energy, and trade services, core final demand PPI increased 0.2 percent during August after holding firm in July. The former has jumped 2.4 percent over the past year while the 12-month comparable for the core index was at +1.9 percent. Wholesale prices for final demand goods leaped 0.5 percent (its biggest month-to-month since April), led by a 3.3 percent jump in PPI for final demand energy goods (gasoline PPI surged 9.5 percent). Food PPI fell 1.3 percent, pulled down by lower meat prices. Net of energy and food, wholesale prices for core goods increased 0.2 percent (its biggest gain since April). Final demand services PPI eked out a 0.1 percent gain.

#4The number of job openings and people hired both edged up during July. Per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were a seasonally adjusted 6.170 million job openings at the end of the July, up 54,000 from a month earlier and up 3.3 percent from a year earlier, and its highest reading in the 17-year history of the data series. Private sector employers had 5.657 million job openings at the end of the month, up 4.4 percent from the July 2016 count. Among the industries with large year-to-year percentage gains in job opening were mining/logging (+130.8 percent), wholesale trade (+20.2 percent), leisure/hospitality (+12.9 percent), and financial activities (+9.9 percent). Employers hired 5.501 million people during July, up 69,000 from June and 3.2 percent from a year earlier. Private sector employers hired 5.164 million people, up 4.4 percent from a year earlier. The largest percentage year-to-year increases in hiring occurred in mining/logging (+47.8 percent), manufacturing (+20.1 percent), financial activities (+10.4 percent), and construction (+9.3 percent). 5.332 million people left their jobs during July, up 23,000 for the month and 6.6 percent from July 2016. 3.164 million people voluntarily quit their jobs during the month (+4.4 percent versus July 2016) while layoffs totaled 1.783 million (+10.8 percent versus July 2016).

#5Employers expect to continue hiring during the final months of 2017. Twenty-one percent of the 11,500 companies surveyed by Manpower indicated plans to hire more workers during the third quarter of 2017 while six percent expect to shed workers. The resulting difference—the Net Employment Outlook—of +15 increases to +17 after seasonal adjustments. This matched the Net Employment Outlook reading from three months earlier but slipped a point from a year earlier. The measure was positive for all 13-tracked industries, with the highest readings for leisure/hospitality (+28), professional/business services (+22), and transportation/utilities (+20). Similarly, there were positive seasonally adjusted Net Employment Outlooks in all four Census regions: Northeast (+18), Midwest (+16), South (+18), and West (+18).

Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:
Jobless Claims (week ending September 9, 2017, First-Time Claims, seasonally adjusted): 284,000 (-14,000 vs. previous week; +26,000 vs. the same week a year earlier). 4-week moving average: 263,250 (+1.7% vs. the same week a year earlier).
Small Business Optimism Index (August 2017, Index (1986=100), seasonally adjusted): 105.3 (vs. July 2017: 105.2; August 2016: 94.4).
University of Michigan Index of Consumer Sentiment (September 2017-preliminary, Index (1966Q1=100), seasonally adjusted):  95.3 (vs. August 2017: 96.8; September 2016: 91.2).
Manufacturers’ and Trade Inventories (July 2017, Business Inventories, seasonally adjusted): $1.874 trillion (+0.2% vs. June 2017, +3.0% vs. July 2016).
Regional and State Employment (August 2017, Nonfarm Payrolls, seasonally adjusted): vs. July 2017: payrolls grew significantly in 6 states and declined significantly in 3 states; vs. August 2016: payrolls increased significantly in 29 states and in the District of Columbia. No state suffered a significant year-to-year decline.
Federal Government Treasury Statement (August 2017, Surplus/Deficit): -$107.7 billion (vs. July 2017: -$42.9 billion; vs. August 2016: -$107.1 billion).

The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Kevin’s current and previous employers. No endorsements are implied.