Popular Economics Weekly
Many economists, including Trump economic advisor Larry Kudlow, are predicting up to 4 percent economic growth over the next few quarters. Why? Full employment is enticing consumers to buy more, with booming retail sales and consumer confidence.
“Sales at health & personal care stores were unusually strong in June, up 2.2 percent following a series of very strong gains in the 1 percent range,” reports Econoday. “Nonstore retailers, in a sign of e-commerce strength, rose 1.3 percent in June and continue to make ground compared to other components. Gasoline stations, boosted by high gas prices, saw a 1.0 percent rise in June sales following a 3.0 percent spike in May. Building materials, at plus 0.8 percent in June, and furniture store sales, up 0.6 percent, are both positive indications for residential investment.”
The problem with understanding the significance of retail sales is that they aren’t corrected for inflation, and consumer (CPI) inflation is approaching 3 percent, so 6 percent nominal annual retail sales is closer to 3 percent in real sales. And that is probably the high end, as consumers’ real average paychecks are increasing 2.7 percent, so any increase in buying is limited by the amount consumers can borrow with rising interest rates, as I’ve been saying.
Is 4 percent GDP growth possible for the next several quarters, as Kudlow, et. al. are predicting? It depends on how long can this business expansion continues, says Brookings economist Robert Shapiro.
“Trump’s middling record on GDP and investment raises the question of how much longer the current expansion, now just two months shy of entering its tenth year, can last,” says Shapiro. “Developed economies move in business cycles, and so they weaken eventually as a matter of course. That’s where the United States is today. This late in any economic expansion, the pool of available workers for new jobs is modest, most attractive investment opportunities have been taken, and any pent-up consumer demand for large durable purchases has been exhausted.”
In fact, wages are falling after inflation by another measure. According to the Labor Department, median weekly earnings fell 0.6 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars in the second quarter, compared to the same time period of 2017. That’s the third straight quarter where inflation has outpaced wage growth, according to MarketWatch’s Steve Goldstein.
This is an important statistic because real personal income growth is one of the four pillars that measure the onset of a recession. Nonfarm employment, industrial production and real retail sales are the other three pillars. All four indicators must peak for a recession to begin. So far, median weekly earnings show weakness, but the other three still show growth.
A more public sign of recession is when there are two consecutive quarters of GDP decline. So to be clear, weakness is showing in just one of the four legs, and there are predictions of at least two more quarters of positive GDP growth.
But then there is the looming trade war. The International Monetary Fund has just warned that President Trump’s trade wars with everyone could cost the world’s economies some $430B in lost growth. The Washington-based organisation said the current threats made by the US and its trading partners risked lowering global growth by as much as 0.5 percent by 2020, or about $430bn in lost GDP worldwide.
It has escalated from $3.6 million in tariffs first imposed in January against 18 types of Chinese solar panels and washing machines to more than 10,000 products worth some $362 billion, as China, Canada and the European Union have retaliated with their own tariffs, according to the latest New York Times estimate.
And 2020 is the year of our next presidential election. So investors can gamble that President Trump won’t continue to double down on his trade wars, if he wants to be re-elected. But it is a very high-stakes gamble.
Harlan Green © 2018
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