Saturday, July 30, 2016

Showing Only 1.2% Growth, GDP Is Still Anemic

Is there truly an economic recovery in progress?  You'd never know it from the GDP which increased by a mere 1.2% in the quarter ending June 30th.  It continues a very sluggish trend that started in 2014 following what had looked to be a promising post-Great Recession recovery.

Quarterly GDP Growth 2012 to Present
Economists generally consider a range of 2.5% to 3.5% GDP growth to be healthy for the economy.  Lower than 2.5% and corporate profits suffer and with them, job growth also suffers.  Higher than 3.5% and the economy starts to experience inflationary pressures.  Now, that last point is significant in this case since we've been in an extended period of under-inflation.  The Fed mandate to maintain inflation at 2% needs a boost in GDP well above what we're currently experiencing before that target grows within reach.

Low inflation, in this case, translates to lower interest rates.  Following Friday's GDP report, the Fed Funds Futures market reacted sharply, reducing the probability of a September Fed interest rate hike to only 12%, and a December probability dropped to 30%.  As we discussed two days ago, interest rates will be depressed likely right through 2017.

Yesterday's announcement made mention of a slight increase in trade, saying it added about 0.2 percentage points to overall growth.  I've read some analysts point to that figure as evidence that the impact of the strong US dollar has stabilized, however I don't believe that to be the case.  Rather, what's driving the trade growth is a drop in US imports, not an increase in exports.  (Imports are subtracted from the figure, so if imports decline, it has a net positive effect on the trade number.)  Given the strength of the dollar, a reduction in imports is a very bearish signal, indicating a decrease in demand for materials and finished products.

Along those same lines, a major factor in yesterday's anemic announcement was continued reduction in inventory restocking by businesses in the US.  This is the fifth consecutive quarter in which inventory levels have dropped, and it's a further indication that there are strong downward pressures on consumer demand and on corporate sales.  Unlike analysts that are predicting a rapid end to that trend, I see just the opposite.  Until there is a healthy increase in the hourly wage statistics and a healthy increase in the Labor Force Participation Rate, I don't see any major driver for a change in inventory stocking behavior that would add anything of significance to the GDP.

When I consider the economic warnings hidden in the Schlumberger and Union Pacific earnings calls earlier this month, I begin to see a general underlying pattern of slowing growth, slowing demand for commodities and raw materials, and a potential crack in the expected rate of consumer spending over the second half of the year.  For that pattern to reverse, we need to see a weakening of the US Dollar, a dramatic reduction in the number of Americans that are out of work, and a return to a price of oil that provides healthy growth across a wide range of industries.  None of those appear to be on the short-term horizon, which leaves me pessimistic about future growth prospects in 2016 and into the first half of 2017.

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