GDP Growth Slowed in Q4, Was Solid for 2018: February 25 – March 1

GDP growth slowed during Q4 but was relatively healthy for all of 2018. Here are the five things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending March 1. 

#1The economic expansion slowed a bit during the final three months of 2018. The first estimate of fourth-quarter 2018 gross domestic product (GDP) places economic growth at a seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR) of +2.6 percent, compared to gains of +4.2 percent and +3.4 percent in Q2 and Q3, respectively. GDP has expanded 3.1 percent since Q4 2017. The Bureau of Economic Analysis also reports that GDP grew 2.9 percent for all of 2018, an improvement over gains of +1.6 percent and +2.2 percent in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Positive contributors to Q4 GDP growth were (in decreasing order) personal consumption expenditures, nonresidential fixed investment (i.e., business investment), exports, the change in private inventories, and government spending. Dragging down Q4 GDP were imports and residential fixed investment (i.e., housing). The BEA will update its Q4 GDP estimate twice over the next two months.GDP Growth 2015-2018 03019

#2Personal spending slumped in December, as had personal income in January. The Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that real personal consumption expenditures (PCE) fell 0.6 percent in December. Real spending on goods slumped 1.4 percent during the month, pulled down by declines for durable and nondurable goods of -1.9 percent and -1.2 percent, respectively. The reduction in spending on services was at a more modest -0.2 percent. Real personal disposable income jumped 1.0 percent in December, with gains for nominal disposable income and nominal personal income growing 1.0 percent the same month. (“Real” measures control for inflation while “nominal” measures do not.) The same report also included January nominal income data, but the story was not as good as nominal personal income slipped 0.1 percent (its first drop since November 2015) while nominal disposable income declined 0.2 percent. Delayed data collection due to the partial federal government shutdown prevented the publication of January data of real disposable income and personal consumption expenditures.

#3Manufacturing activity grew at a slower rate in February. The PMI, the headline index from the Institute for Supply Management’s Manufacturing Report on Business, lost 2.4 points during the month to a reading of 54.2. Despite the PMI dropping to its lowest point since November 2016, the measure has been above a reading of 50.0 for 30 straight months, indicative of an expanding manufacturing sector. Four of five PMI components declined in February: production (-5.7 points), employment (-3.2 points), new orders (-2.7 points), and supplier deliveries (-1.3 points). The index tracking inventories added 6/10ths of a point during the month. Sixteen of 18 tracked manufacturing sector expanded in February, led by printing, textile mills, and computer/electronics.

#4Housing starts plummeted in December. The Census Bureau estimates housing starts dropped 11.2 percent during the month to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR) of 1.078 million units. This was 10.9 percent under the year-ago pace of starts. Starts of multi-family units (five or more units) slumped 22.0 percent while single-family home starts slowed 6.7 percent. Starts fell in three of four Census regions during December but held steady in the Northeast. Looking towards the future, the number of issued building permits edged up 0.3 percent to 1.326 million (SAAR), an increase of 0.5 percent from a year earlier. The number of permits issued to build single-family homes dropped 2.2 percent while that for multi-family units of at least five units jumped 5.7 percent. The annualized rate of completed homes slowed 2.7 percent to 1.097 million, an 8.4 percent decline from December 2017.

#5Consumer sentiment rebounded in February. The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence jumped by 9.7 points during the month to a seasonally adjusted 131.4 (1985=100), its first increase in four months. Much of the gain came from an improved outlook for near-future business conditions as the expectations index surged a full 14 points to 103.4. The current conditions measure added 3.3 points to 173.5. 41.2 percent of surveyed consumers saw current business conditions as “good” compared to just 10.8 percent saying there were “bad.” Similarly, 46.1 percent of survey respondents viewed jobs as being “plentiful” versus 11.8 percent of them as being “hard to get.”

Meanwhile, the University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment grew to a seasonally adjusted reading of 93.8 (1966Q1=100), up 2.6 points for the month but still below the year-ago reading of 99.7. The present conditions index edged down by 3/10ths of a point to 84.4 (February 2018: 90.0) while the expectations index improved by 4.5 points to 84.4 (February 2018: 90.0). The press release said that the survey data suggests real personal spending will grow 2.6 percent for all of 2019, which “will mean that the expansion is expected to set a new record length by mid-year.

Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:
Jobless Claims (week ending February 23, 2019, First-Time Claims, seasonally adjusted): 225,000 (+8,000 vs. previous week; +8,000 vs. the same week a year earlier). 4-week moving average: 229,000 (+2.7% vs. the same week a year earlier).
Chicago Fed National Activity Index (January 2019, Index (0.00=U.S. Expanding at its Historical Average): -0.43 (vs. December 2018: +0.05; January 2018: -0.29).
Factory Orders (December 2018, New Orders for Manufactured Goods, seasonally adjusted): $499.9 billion (+0.1% vs. November 2018, +2.4% vs. December 2017).
Pending Home Sales (January 2019, Index (100=2001), seasonally adjusted): 103.2 (December 2018: 98.7; January 2018: 105.6).
FHFA House Price Index (December 2018, Purchase-Only Index, seasonally adjusted): +0.3% vs. November 2018, +5.6% vs. December 2017.
Case-Shiller Home Price Index (December 2018, 20-City Index, seasonally adjusted): +0.2% vs. November 2018, +4.2% vs. December 2017.
Agricultural Prices (January 2019, Prices Received by Farmers (Index: 2011=100)): -4.5% vs. December 2018, -0.7% vs. January 2018.

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

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