The Bureau of Economic Analysis said that the U.S. economy grew 1.9 percent at the annual rate in the fourth quarter in preliminary data. This was slightly less than the consensus estimate for 2.2 percent, and it was slower than the 3.5 percent increase seen in the third quarter. Real GDP growth was buoyed by modest growth in consumer and government spending and by a continuing rebound in business investment, but net exports served as a drag on the headline number. Overall, the U.S. economy expanded 1.6 percent in 2016, down from its 2.2 percent post-recessionary average, and the year was mostly marked by an all-too-cautious approach to spending on the part of consumers and business leaders. Yet, by year’s end, that began to change – with many Americans and firms more willing to open their pocketbooks. Moving forward, I would expect 2.6 percent growth in real GDP in 2017 – a figure that can be assisted by pro-growth policies emanating from Washington including comprehensive tax reform, regulatory balance and investment in infrastructure.
Looking more closely at the underlying data, consumer spending on goods increased 5.2 percent at the annual rate in the fourth quarter, building on the 3.5 percent gain seen in the third quarter. This figure was boosted by strength in durable goods purchases including motor vehicles. Personal consumption expenditures added 1.70 percentage points to real GDP in the fourth quarter, with 0.58 percent coming from services and 1.11 percent stemming from goods spending.
Healthier business spending also served to boost real GDP growth, with gross private domestic investment adding 1.67 percentage points to the top line. It was the largest contribution to the real GDP since the second quarter of 2014. Residential and nonresidential fixed investment rose 10.2 percent and 2.4 percent in the fourth quarter, respectively, with both notching notable improvements from the third quarter. Indeed, residential spending rebounded from a sharp decline in the prior report, and equipment spending rose for the first time in five quarters. Inventories were also up significantly for the second straight quarter, accounting for a full percentage point of the 1.67 percent contribution in this category. Yet, it was not all good news, as nonresidential fixed investment in structures fell 5.0 percent in the fourth quarter.
Finally, manufacturers have been challenged over much of the past two years by a number of global headwinds. This has included a rapid appreciation in the U.S. dollar, as well as economic softness to many key markets. Along those lines, the contribution to GDP from net exports slipped back into negative territory in the fourth quarter for the first time in 2016, subtracting 1.70 percentage points to the headline number. (Put another way, if it had not been for net exports, real GDP growth in the fourth quarter would have been 3.6 percent, not 1.9 percent.) Goods imports jumped 10.9 percent in this release, with goods exports off by 6.9 percent.