Here is the summary for this week’s Monday Economic Report:
The U.S. economy contracted for the first time in three years in the first quarter of 2014. Real GDP fell 1.0 percent in the quarter, a fairly substantial revision from the earlier estimate of a gain of 0.1 percent. Much of the storyline behind these figures was the same, with consumer spending on services being the only real bright spot. Purchases of durable and nondurable goods were positive, but weather-related challenges dampened both. Weaknesses in business spending for equipment and structures, residential housing investments and reduced goods exports were all major drags on growth.
The bulk of the downward revision stemmed from lower inventory replenishment. Ironically, that could lead to more inventory spending in the second quarter with stocks running lower. In addition, other figures also point to a rebound in activity during the spring months, with my forecast for second-quarter real GDP at 3.8 percent. Still, U.S. and global growth have started off 2014 much slower than anticipated, particularly when averaging together the first and second quarters. For the year, we now expect growth of 2.3 percent, which would indicate a slight downgrade from the more optimistic outlook predicted coming out of the strong momentum during the second half of last year.
The spring rebound in the manufacturing sector can be seen in other data released last week as well, albeit with some mixed news overall. For instance, new durable goods orders rose 0.8 percent in April, building on strong growth in February and March. Nonetheless, excluding transportation, new durable goods orders were up less robustly, suggesting some broader weaknesses beyond the headline monthly figure. Moreover, new durable goods shipments declined 0.2 percent in April, even as the longer-term trend remains positive.
At the same time, regional Federal Reserve Bank surveys show a similar recovery for manufacturers, but also some easing in the latest data. Manufacturing activity in the Dallas Federal Reserve district has now expanded for 12 straight months, but the pace of growth for new orders, production, capacity and employment eased in May. The Richmond Federal Reserve’s report also observed a deceleration in sales growth; however, it also noted a pickup in shipments and hiring. Perceptions about the current business outlook were unchanged, even as conditions had improved from winter weather earlier in the year. Looking ahead six months, respondents in both Dallas and Richmond remain mostly upbeat, even if this enthusiasm was a bit weaker in May.
The two surveys also indicated a rise in pricing pressure expectations, consistent with other reports showing some higher raw material costs. Indeed, prices for personal consumption expenditures have risen 1.6 percent year-over-year, up from 0.9 percent in February and 1.1 percent in March. April’s increase stemmed largely from higher energy prices, with food costs also up modestly (but at a slower pace than the month before).
Speaking of consumer spending, Americans decreased their purchases by 0.1 percent in April following two months of healthy increases. Year-to-date, personal spending has grown 1.6 percent, with purchases up 4.3 percent over the past 12 months. Meanwhile, the two consumer confidence measures—one from the Conference Board and the other from the University of Michigan and Thomson Reuters—moved in opposite directions in May, even as they continue to reflect rising sentiment over the past few months, particularly since the government shutdown.
This week, the focus will be on jobs and trade. We will get new employment numbers for May on Friday, which we hope will build on April’s strong figures. Manufacturers have averaged just more than 13,000 workers per month since August, and the expectation is for job growth in the sector around 10,000 or so in May. The consensus forecast is for 215,000 additional nonfarm payroll workers for the month, suggesting decent hiring. On the international front, we will learn if manufactured goods exports can improve from the rather disappointing rates so far in 2014, up just 1.1 percent in the first quarter of this year relative to the same three months in 2013. Other highlights include new data on construction, factory orders, productivity and Purchasing Managers’ Index figures from the Institute for Supply Management.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.