The U.S. economy slowed in the first quarter as consumer spending grew
at its weakest pace in nearly five years, but a surge in wages amid tightening
labor market conditions and lower tax rates suggested the setback is likely
Gross domestic product increased at a 2.3 percent annual rate, the
Commerce Department said in its snapshot of first-quarter GDP on Friday, also
restrained by a moderation in business spending on equipment and investment in
These factors were partially offset by a rise in inventories and a
narrowing of the trade deficit. The economy grew at a 2.9 percent rate in the
fourth quarter. Domestic demand increased at a 1.7 percent rate, the slowest in
two years, after rising at a brisk 4.8 percent pace in the final three months
The moderate first-quarter growth is, however, probably not a true
reflection of the economy’s health as GDP tends to be sluggish at the start of
the year because of a seasonal quirk.
Economists expect growth will accelerate in the second quarter as more
households feel the impact of the Trump administration’s $1.5 trillion income
tax package on their paychecks. The tax cuts came into effect in January.
Lower corporate and individual tax rates as well as increased government
spending will likely lift annual economic growth close to the administration’s
3 percent target. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast output rising at a
2.0 percent rate in the January-March period.
“Tax cuts and government spending increases should lead to better
overall economic activity,” said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff
Economic Advisors in Holland, Pennsylvania.
Federal Reserve officials are likely to shrug off the first-quarter
performance. The U.S. central bank raised interest rates last month in a nod to
the strong labor market and economy, and forecast at least two more rate hikes
Minutes of the March 20-21 meeting published earlier this month showed
policymakers “expected that the first-quarter softness would be transitory,”
citing “residual seasonality in the data, and more generally to strong economic
But a jump in wage growth and an acceleration in inflation in the first
quarter will attract attention when Fed officials meet next Tuesday and Wednesday.
In a separate report in Friday, the Labor Department said wages and
salaries shot up 0.9 percent in the first quarter. That was the largest
increase since the first quarter of 2007 and followed a 0.5 percent rise in the
Wages and salaries were up 2.7 percent in the 12 months through March
compared to 2.5 percent in the year to December.
The GDP report showed the Fed’s preferred inflation gauge, the personal
consumption expenditures (PCE) price index excluding food and energy, increased
at a 2.5 percent rate - the fastest pace since the fourth quarter of 2007. The
core PCE price index rose at a 1.9 percent pace in the fourth quarter.
The U.S. central bank has a 2 percent inflation target.
“It is increasingly difficult to argue that the 2 percent inflation
target hasn’t already been breached,” said Steven Blitz, chief U.S. economist
at TS Lombard in New York. “Could the Fed go next week? Not likely, but there
are no rules preventing it. A more hawkish statement is coming.”
The dollar initially rose against a basket of currencies after the data,
but gave up gains to trade little changed. Prices for U.S. Treasuries were
marginally higher while stocks on Wall Street fell.
WEAK CONSUMER SPENDING
Growth in consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of
U.S. economic activity, braked to a 1.1 percent rate in the first quarter. That
was the slowest pace since the second quarter of 2013 and followed the fourth
quarter’s robust 4.0 percent growth rate.
Consumer spending in the last quarter was undercut by a decline in
purchases of motor vehicles, clothing and footwear as well as a slowdown in
food and beverages outlays. This likely reflects delayed tax refunds. In
addition, surveys suggested many workers did not see the tax cut boost to their
paychecks until late in the quarter.
Income at the disposal of households increased at a 3.4 percent rate in
the first quarter, accelerating from the fourth quarter’s 1.1 percent pace.
Households also boosted savings, which bodes well for a pickup in spending.
Business spending on equipment slowed to a 4.7 percent rate in the
January-March quarter after double-digit growth in the second half of 2017. The
cooling in equipment investment comes as the stimulus from a recovery in
commodity prices is fading.
Investment in homebuilding was unchanged in the first three months of
the year as sluggish home sales caused by a dearth of houses on the market
weighed on brokers’ commissions. Residential investment increased at a 12.8
percent rate in the October-December period.
Government spending grew at a 1.2 percent rate, slowing from the fourth
quarter’s 3.0 percent pace. Spending is expected to accelerate in the second
quarter after the U.S. Congress recently approved more government spending.
Trade added 0.20 percentage point to GDP growth as weak a U.S. dollar
and strengthening global economy bolstered exports.
With consumer spending slowing, inventories increased at a $33.1 billion
rate in the first quarter, up from a $15.6 billion pace in the prior period.
Inventory investment contributed 0.43 percentage point to GDP growth after
subtracting 0.53 percentage point in the fourth quarter.
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