A Slowdown in Growth: March 25 – 29

Economic activity was lukewarm in Q4 and early 2019. Here are the five things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending March 29.

#1Q4 economic growth was less robust than previously believed. The Bureau of Economic Analysis’ third release of fourth quarter 2018 gross domestic product (GDP) finds the U.S. economy grew 2.2 percent on a seasonally adjusted annualized basis. This was a downward revision from the Q4 GDP report published a month ago that had indicated a 2.6 percent increase, and it was below Q3’s 3.4 percent annualized gain. Even with the downward revision, GDP grew 2.9 percent for all of 2018, ahead of increases of 2.2 percent and 1.6 percent for 2017 and 2016, respectively. The downward revision was the result of lower than previously believed levels of personal consumption expenditures, government spending, and business spending. The same report indicates that business profits slipped 0.4 percent from Q3 to an annualized $2.311 trillion. Corporate earnings for all of 2018 were $2.263 trillion, up 7.8 percent from 2017. The first view of Q1 2019 GDP comes out in late April, with early indications suggesting a weaker report (see next).GDP 2007-2018 032919

#2Meanwhile, economic activity appears to have been tepid in February. The Chicago Fed National Activity Index lost four basis points during the month to a reading of -0.29. This was the third consecutive month in which the CFNAI was negative, indicative of below-average economic growth. Of the 85 data points included in the CFNAI, only 38 made positive contributions, and just 37 indicators showed improvement from their January readings. Among the four major categories of indicators, two improved from the previous month: production (up 13-basis points to a contribution of -0.16) and sales/orders/inventories (up two-basis points to +0.02). Slipping in February were measures related to employment (down 17-basis points to a -0.10 contribution) and personal consumption/housing (down three-basis points to -0.03). The CFNAI’s three-month moving average fell to its lowest reading since October 2016, shedding 18-basis points to a reading of -0.18 (again, indicative of below-average economic growth). 

#3Real personal spending slightly grew in January. Real personal consumption expenditures (PCE) increased 0.1 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis during the month following December’s 0.6 percent decline, per the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Spending grew for both nondurable goods (+0.5 percent) and services (+0.2 percent) but plummeted 1.6 percent for durable goods. Nominal (not inflation adjusted) spending also grew 0.1 percent. The modest gain in spending occurred despite a 0.1 percent drop in nominal personal income and with disposable income (both nominal and real) falling 0.2 percent. Over the past year, real disposable income has grown 3.0 percent while real PCE increased 2.3 percent. January’s saving rate of 7.5 percent was off 2/10ths of a percentage point from December.

#4The trade deficit narrowed (but remained rather wide) in January. The Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that exports grew by $1.9 billion to $207.3 billion (+3.0 percent versus January 2018) during January while imports shrank by $6.8 billion to $258.5 billion (+1.6 percent versus January 2018). The resulting trade deficit of -$51.1 billion was down $8.8 billion from the previous month and 3.7 percent smaller than that of January 2018. The goods deficit plummeted by $8.2 billion to -$73.3 billion (down 2.8 percent from a year earlier) while the services surplus grew by $0.5 billion to +$22.1 billion (off 0.7 percent over the previous year). The former was the result in a $1.8 billion gain in exported goods (due to increased food and automotive exports) and a $6.5 billion decline in imported goods (due to a decrease in imports of capital goods and crude oil). The U.S. had its biggest goods deficits with China (-$33.2 billion), the European Union (-$13.1 billion), and Mexico (-$7.2 billion).

#5Differing stories from two measures of consumer sentiment. The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index shed 7.3 points during March to a seasonally adjusted reading of 124.1 (1985=100). Also falling were indices for present conditions (slumping 12.2 points to 160.6) and expected conditions (off 4.0 points to 99.8). Dropping hard was the percentage of survey respondents who viewed current business conditions as “good,” declining from 40.6 percent to 33.4 percent. However, only 13.6 percent of consumers viewed current conditions as “poor.” The press release characterized sentiment as “volatile,” as consumers “have had to weather volatility in the financial markets, a partial government shutdown and a very weak February jobs report.”

Presenting a different story was the University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment, which added 4.6 points during March to a seasonally adjusted reading of 98.4 (1966Q1=100). The present conditions grew by 4.8 points to 113.3 (March 2018: 121.2) while the expectations index rose by 4.4 points to 88.8 (which matched its reading from a year earlier). The press release noted that the improvement in the headline measure “was entirely due to households with incomes in the bottom two-thirds of the income distribution.”

Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:
Jobless Claims (week ending March 23, 2019, First-Time Claims, seasonally adjusted): 211,000 (-5,000 vs. previous week; -6,000 vs. the same week a year earlier). 4-week moving average: 217,250 (-1.6% vs. the same week a year earlier).
New Home Sales (February 2019, New Houses Sold, seasonally adjusted annualized rate): 667,000 (+4.9% vs. January 2019, +0.6% vs. February 2018).
Housing Starts (February 2019, Housing Starts, seasonally adjusted annualized rate): 1.162 million (-8.7% vs. January 2019, -9.9% vs. February 2018).
Pending Home Sales (February 2019, Index (2001=100), seasonally adjusted): 101.9 (-1.0% vs. January 2019, -4.9% vs. February 2018).
Case-Shiller Home Price Index (January 2019, 20-City Index, seasonally adjusted): +0.1% vs. December 2018, +3.6% vs. January 2018).
FHFA Housing Price Index (January 2019, Purchase-Only Index, seasonally adjusted): +0.6% vs. December 2018, +5.6% vs. January 2018. 

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

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