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Strong US growth disguises worrying trends

Last Friday (April 26, 2019), the US Bureau of Economic Analysis published their latest national accounts data (advance estimate) – Gross Domestic Product, First Quarter 2019 (Advance Estimate) – which tells us that the annualised real GDP growth rate of 3.2 per cent surprised most commentators (for its strength). As this is only the “Advance estimate” (based on incomplete data) there is every likelihood that the figure will be revised when the “second estimate” is published on May 30, 2019. Underlying the strong headline figure, however, are shifting expenditure patterns in the US. Household consumption growth is declining and the contribution to growth was down from 1.7 points in December 2018 to 0.82 points. The personal saving rate rose from 6.8 per cent of disposable income to 7 per cent as households tightened up in the face of record levels of debt and sluggish wages growth. The investment rose and Gross private domestic investment also contributed 0.92 points to growth, up from 0.66 points. However, that contribution was driven mostly by a rise in inventories, which can signal two things – either unsold goods due to firms overestimating domestic demand or stock-building in expectation of stronger future spending. I suspect it is the first of these explanations. Further, net exports were a strong contributor (1.03 points) after undermining growth in the December-quarter 2018. Real disposable personal income increased 2.4 per cent (down from 4.3 per cent in December). Overall, and notwithstanding the strong growth, the problems for the US growth prospects are two-fold: (a) What will be the contraction in consumption expenditure growth with slow wages growth and elevated personal debt levels? Most of the consumption growth is coming because more people are getting jobs even though wages growth is flat. (b) Can net exports growth defy Trump’s trade policy? We will wait and see.

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