Slow Q1 GDP Growth Means What?

Financial FAQs

Real gross domestic product (GDP) increased at an annual rate of 0.7 percent in the first quarter of 2017, according to the “advance” estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the fourth quarter of 2016, real GDP increased 2.1 percent.

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Graph: BEA

The first estimate of first quarter economic growth usually means little. Consumer weren’t spending, and they never seem to spend much in Q1, as in past years, as the BEA graph show. But with consumer confidence still sky high because of optimism that President Trump and Congress might still agree on some stimulus, spending may pick up.

There were signs of higher growth in Q1 outside of the consumers, particularly in real estate. “The deceleration in real GDP in the first quarter reflected a deceleration in PCE and downturns in private inventory investment and in state and local government spending that were partly offset by an upturn in exports and accelerations in both nonresidential and residential fixed investment,” said the BEA.

So consumer sentiments can be deceptive, even misleading, given the lack of higher consumer spending in Q1. The Conference Board reported the consumer confidence index eased back to 120.3 in April vs a revised 124.9 in March with these two months the best of the 8-year expansion. “Readings remain strongly favorable including jobs-hard-to-get which is steady at a very low 19.1 percent and points to strength for the April employment report,” said Econoday.

Weak vehicle sales are a major negative in the quarter’s consumer breakdown, pulling durable sales down at a 2.5 percent rate and offsetting a 1.5 percent rise in non-durables and a slow 0.4 percent showing for services. Weakness in consumer spending is worrisome but not other data in the GDP report. Residential investment posted a second straight very strong quarter, up 13.7 percent. And in a rare show of strength, nonresidential investment, which has been subdued, jumped at a 9.4 percent rate with both structures and equipment showing unusual strength. A surge in mining investment is a standout of the report, said the BEA.

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Graph: Econoday

There are more signs that growth could pick up in coming quarters. The Institute for Supply Management’s Chicago Business Barometer, a proxy for Midwest growth, ticked up 0.6 Points in April to 58.3 in April from 57.7 in March, the highest level since January 2015. New orders are the highest since May 2014, and in a sign of ongoing strength deliveries continue to slow. 

Optimism among firms about business conditions rose for the third month in a row. Three of the five Barometer components led April’s increase, with Production and Order Backlogs receding, said the report. Third Consecutive Rise in Business Confidence, New Orders Highest Since May 2014, Inflationary Pressures Ease Slightly, Prices Paid fall, as the MNI Chicago Business Barometer increased to 58.3 in April from 57.7 in March, the highest level since January 2015.

“The April Chicago report showcased another impressive month, with firms reporting solid growth. Rising demand and firm production led to a pick-up in hiring by firms. Although the employment indicator has been bumpy, in and out of contraction, if the current month’s rise is sustained, it could provide a boost to the labor market,” said Shaily Mittal, senior economist at MNI Indicators, compiler of the report.

But optimism doesn’t always translate to spending, as we know from past reports. Consumers’ incomes keep rising and were very solid in the fourth quarter at a 3.5 percent pace, but rose at only 0.3 percent in first-quarter 2017 on weak vehicle sales and lower heating bills. This is by far the worst showing since no change in fourth-quarter 2009, and would be the lowest showing for consumer spending in 5 years. What will it take for consumers to spend again?

Harlan Green © 2017

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

About populareconomicsblog

Harlan Green is editor/publisher of PopularEconomics.com, and content provider of 3 weekly columns to various blogs--Popular Economics Weekly and The Huffington Post
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