Economic activity increased 1.9% in last year’s fourth quarter, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reports, slightly below expectations. Compared with the strong 3.5% rise in Q3, today’s update looks worrisome. But closer inspection, using year-over-year comparisons, shows that nothing much has changed – moderate growth endures. In fact, the trend picked up a bit.
Matching the quarterly rate, real GDP also increased 1.9% in Q4 vs. the year-earlier level, the best gain in 2016 for annual changes. Compared with results since the Great Recession ended in 2009, today’s numbers reflect a year-over-year change that’s just below the average increase (2.0%).
A 2.0% annual rate of growth rate in real terms for the economy is nothing to celebrate. During the years before the last recession hit, the year-over-year GDP trend topped 4% at one point. But reading today’s numbers as anything other than more of the same ignores the history of the last seven years. In sum, growth has been plodding along at a moderate pace and today’s results don’t challenge that trend.
“The economy is continuing to chug along in the slow lane,” notes Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group, adding that “consumer spending was fairly solid.” He also says that “we’re at a turning point on the upside for business investment. Based on the economy and on the policies we’re likely to see, growth is going to speed up this year.”
Perhaps, although there’s plenty of room for debate, in part because the Trump administration appears willing to risk a trade war.
For the moment, however, the economy continues to expand – at a pace that’s strong enough to keep a new recession at bay (as noted in Monday’s economic profile) but without repairing all the damage that still lingers from the last downturn — the “legacy of the Great Recession,” as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities labels the blowback.
Nonetheless, yesterday’s update of the Chicago Fed National Activity Index show that the macro trend picked up in December, led by stronger data in production-related indicators – news that provides support to Hoffman’s view that firmer growth may be coming. Ditto for the upbeat profile in the Conference Board’s (CB) leading economic index for last month. Yesterday’s report is “suggesting the economy will continue growing at a moderate pace, perhaps even accelerating slightly in the early months of this year,” advises the CB’s Ataman Ozyildirim.
But after seven years of false starts for accelerating growth, it’s wise to adopt the old Ronald Reagan line for managing economic expectations: trust but verify.
“We look at the talk of stimulus with some anticipation of a positive boost to the economy,” the CFO of Texas Instruments, Kevin March, said last week. “But frankly we think it’s probably too early to figure out what that might be and how it might manifest itself.”
Yet expectations are spreading that the trend is headed for an upside adjustment of some magnitude. International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde, for example, has just climbed on the hope train, reasoning that the Trump administration’s plans to revise the tax code and ramp up infrastructure will boost growth. “We think there is a high probability of that in the next couple of years,” she said earlier today.
Based on the numbers available right now, however, the data’s still singing a familiar tune that combines several verses of bright spots with a recurring chorus of disappointment.
Will the new year bring better news? The New York Fed’s latest estimate for this year’s Q1 GDP report hints at the possibility, if only slightly. The bank’s GDP model is currently projecting a 2.7% advance in the first three months of 2017 (as of Jan. 20). Better, but still far below Trump’s plan to boost US growth to 4%.