Pent-up demand, shortages fuel U.S. inflation

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. consumer prices surged in April, with a measure of underlying inflation blowing past the Federal Reserve’s 2% target and posting its largest annual gain since 1992, because of pent-up demand and supply constraints as the economy reopens.

The strong inflation readings reported by the Commerce Department on Friday had been widely anticipated as the pandemic’s grip eases, thanks to vaccinations, and will have no impact on monetary policy. Fed Chair Jerome Powell has repeatedly stated that higher inflation will be transitory.

The U.S. central bank slashed its benchmark overnight interest rate to near zero last year and is pumping money into the economy through monthly bond purchases. It has signaled it could tolerate higher inflation for some time to offset years in which inflation was lodged below its target, a flexible average.

The supply constraints largely reflect a shift in demand towards goods and away from services during the pandemic. A reversal is underway, with Americans flying to vacation destinations and staying at hotels among other activities. Year-on-year inflation is also accelerating as last spring’s weak readings drop from the calculation.

“Many goods are in short supply amid very strong demand and supply chain disruptions, and some services prices are up sharply as consumers start to go out again,” said Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC Financial in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “Shortages of labor in some industries are also contributing to higher prices. But many of these factors will prove transitory, and inflation will slow in the second half of 2021.”

Consumer prices as measured by the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index, excluding the volatile food and energy components, increased 0.7% last month amid strong gains in both goods and services. That was the biggest rise in the so-called core PCE price index since October 2001 and followed a 0.4% gain in March.

In the 12 months through April, the core PCE price index vaulted 3.1%, the most since July 1992, after rising 1.9% in March. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the core PCE price index rising 0.6% in April and surging 2.9% year-on-year.

The core PCE price index is the Fed’s preferred inflation gauge.

Stocks on Wall Street were trading higher, though gains were capped by the rising price pressures. The dollar rose against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were higher.

“Inflation is up, but real yields are still low,” said Jamie Cox, managing partner at Harris Financial Group in Richmond, Virginia. “This is basically the transitory sweet spot.”

INCOME PLUNGES

Some economists are not convinced that higher inflation will be temporary.

A survey from the University of Michigan on Friday showed consumers’ one-year inflation expectations shot up to 4.6% in May from 3.4% in April, hurting household sentiment. Their five-year inflation expectations rose to 3.0% from 2.7% last month.

“Concerns about the future can cause households to become more conservative in their spending,” said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economics in Holland, Pennsylvania. “The Fed is guessing that the rise in inflation will be temporary, and it better be correct.”

Though consumer spending moderated last month as the boost to incomes from stimulus checks faded, households have accumulated at least $2.3 trillion in excess savings during the pandemic, which should underpin demand. Wages are also rising as companies seek to attract labor to increase production.

Generous unemployment benefits funded by the government, problems with child care and fears of contracting the virus, even with vaccines widely accessible, as well as pandemic-related retirements have left companies scrambling for labor.

That is despite nearly 10 million Americans being officially unemployed. Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, rose 0.5% last month. Data for March was revised higher to show spending surging 4.7% instead of 4.2% as previously reported.

The rise in spending was in line with expectations. Spending was held back by a 0.6% drop in outlays on goods. Though purchases of long-lasting goods such as motor vehicles rose 0.5%, spending on nondurable goods tumbled 1.3%. Outlays on services increased 1.1%, led by spending on recreation, hotel accommodation and at restaurants.

When adjusted for inflation, consumer spending slipped 0.1% after jumping 4.1% in March. Despite last month’s dip in the so-called real consumer spending, March’s solid increase put consumption on a higher growth trajectory in the second quarter.

Personal income plunged 13.1% after surging 20.9% in March. With spending exceeding income, the saving rate dropped to a still-high 14.9% from 27.7% in March. Wages increased 1.0% for a second straight month.

Consumer spending powered ahead at a 11.3% annualized rate in the first quarter, contributing to the economy’s 6.4% growth pace. Most economists expect double-digit growth this quarter, which would position the economy to achieve growth of at least 7% this year, which would be the fastest since 1984. The economy contracted 3.5% in 2020, its worst performance in 74 years.

Growth prospects for the second quarter were bolstered by another report from the Commerce Department showing the goods trade deficit narrowed 7.3% to $85.2 billion in April, with exports rising and imports declining.

But inventory at retailers fell 1.6%, pulled down by a 7.0% plunge in automobile stocks as the sector struggles with a global semiconductor shortage.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Chizu Nomiyama)

Fiscal stimulus powers U.S. economic growth in first quarter

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. economic growth accelerated in the first quarter as the government gave money to mostly lower-income households, fueling consumer spending and setting the course for what is expected to be the strongest performance this year in nearly four decades.

The government largesse also extended to businesses, especially in the high-contact services industry. The massive fiscal stimulus and easing anxiety over COVID-19, with all adult Americans now eligible for vaccination against the virus, have resulted in a faster economic rebound in the United States compared to its global rivals.

The second-fastest gross domestic product growth since the third quarter of 2003, reported by the Commerce Department on Thursday, left output just 0.9% shy of its level at the end of 2019. Economists expect a full recovery from the pandemic recession, which started in February 2020, in late 2023.

The report is a boost for President Joe Biden as he celebrated 100 days in the White House.

“In early 2021, the economy was served a strong cocktail of improving health conditions and rapid vaccinations along with a fizzy dose of fiscal stimulus and a steady flow of monetary policy support,” said Lydia Boussour, lead U.S. economist at Oxford Economics in New York. “Looking ahead, we foresee the economy’s spring bloom turning into a summer boom.”

GDP increased at a 6.4% annualized rate last quarter, the government said in its advance estimate for the first three months of the year. That followed a 4.3% growth rate in the fourth quarter. It was the biggest first-quarter increase in growth since 1984.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast GDP growth would increase at a 6.1% pace in the January-March period.

Income at the disposal of households before accounting for inflation surged by a whopping $2.36 trillion after decreasing $402.1 billion in the fourth quarter. As result, consumer spending jumped at a 10.7% rate, boosted by purchases of motor vehicles, furniture, recreational goods and electronics. Consumers also dined out, stayed at hotels and gambled.

Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, grew at a 2.3% pace in the fourth quarter. Some of the stimulus money was stashed away, with savings ballooning to $4.12 trillion from $2.25 trillion in the fourth quarter. Economists estimate households have accumulated at least $2 trillion in excess savings during the pandemic.

The government has provided nearly $6 trillion in COVID-19 relief over the past year. Robust demand in the first quarter pushed against supply constraints, leading businesses to draw down inventories, limiting the rise in GDP growth.

Excluding inventories, government and trade, the economy grew at a 10.6% rate last quarter.

The rapidly accelerating growth could revive fears about the economy overheating. The Federal Reserve on Wednesday acknowledged the burgeoning domestic activity, but the U.S. central bank gave no sign it was ready to reduce its extraordinary support for the recovery.

The booming economy could also erode support among moderate Democrats for Biden’s ambitious economic agenda. Biden on Wednesday unveiled a sweeping $1.8 trillion package for families and education in his first joint speech to Congress. Republicans oppose more stimulus, now worried about swelling debt. The new package and an earlier infrastructure and jobs plan total around $4 trillion, rivaling the annual federal budget.

“The second quarter will be hotter, people have money to spend as they are able to go shopping and traveling again,” said Sung Won Sohn, a finance and economics professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “Production is being ramped up to rebuild inventories. President Biden and (Fed) Chairman (Jerome) Powell, do we need all the stimuli?”

U.S. stocks were mostly higher. The dollar was steady against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices fell.

POWERFUL MOMENTUM

Inflation has accelerated, but many economists, including Fed officials, expect it will be transitory as the labor market remains 8.4 million jobs below its peak in February 2020.

The labor market is gradually recovering. In a separate report on Thursday, the Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell 13,000 to a seasonally adjusted 553,000 during the week ended April 24.

While claims have dropped from a record 6.149 million in early April 2020, they are above the range of 200,000 to 250,000 that is viewed as consistent with a healthy labor market.

There were 16.6 million people receiving unemployment benefits in the first week of April.

“We’re still probably a couple years away from pre-pandemic employment levels, but based on the powerful economic momentum built up in the first quarter, we should return close to a fully-functioning economy in the second quarter,” said Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union in Vienna, Virginia.

Economists forecast growth this year could top 7%, which would be the fastest since 1984. The economy contracted 3.5% in 2020, the worst performance in 74 years.

Growth in the first quarter was also driven by business spending on equipment, which posted a third straight quarter of double-digit expansion. But business investment in nonresidential structures fell for a sixth straight quarter as a rebound in mining exploration, shafts and wells was offset by a drop in commercial and healthcare buildings.

Residential investment contributed to GDP growth for a third straight quarter. But trade was a drag for the third consecutive quarter as some of the domestic demand was satiated with imports. Inventories were drawn down at a rate of 85.5 billion.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)

U.S. goods trade deficit hits record high in March

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. trade deficit in goods jumped to a record high in March, suggesting trade was a drag on economic growth in the first quarter, but that was likely offset by robust domestic demand amid massive government aid and easing pandemic stress.

Economic activity in the United States has rebounded more quickly compared to its global rivals. The pent-up demand is drawing in imports, eclipsing a recovery in exports and keeping the overall trade deficit elevated. The report from the Commerce Department on Wednesday also showed inventories at retailers fell sharply in March, underscoring the strong domestic demand.

“The widening in the goods deficit suggests that trade will be a drag on first-quarter GDP,” said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania. “This won’t be a big issue, as other parts of the economy are still doing well, such as business investment in equipment and consumer spending.”

The goods trade deficit surged 4.0% to $90.6 billion last month, the highest in the history of the series. Exports of goods accelerated 8.7% to $142.0 billion. They were boosted by shipments of motor vehicles, industrial supplies, consumer and capital goods, and food.

The jump in exports was offset by a 6.8% advance in imports to $232.6 billion. Imports rose across the board. There were large gains in imports of motor vehicles, industrial supplies, consumer goods and food. Capital goods imports also rose solidly.

“The goods deficit will start to shrink by the end of 2021 and into 2022,” said Bill Adams, senior economist at PNC Financial in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “As the pandemic comes under control in the United States, American consumers will spend less on imported goods, shrinking imports, and foreigners will buy more U.S. exports as their economies recover further.”

Stocks on Wall Street were mixed. The dollar rose against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were mixed.

The report was published ahead of Thursday’s advance first-quarter gross domestic product data, which is expected to show the economy grew at a robust 6.1% annualized rate in the first three months of the year after expanding at a 4.3% pace in the fourth quarter, according to a Reuters survey of economists.

That would be the second-fastest growth pace since the third quarter of 2003. Strong consumer spending and business investment as well as the housing market are expected to boost growth.

The rise in COVID-19 vaccinations and the White House’s $1.9 trillion pandemic rescue package have allowed for greater economic re-engagement, boosting consumer spending, hiring and business spending on equipment.

Some of the goods imported in March ended up in warehouses at wholesalers, which could blunt the drag on GDP growth from trade. The Commerce Department reported wholesale inventories shot up 1.4% last month after rising 0.9% in February.

But stocks at retailers tumbled 1.4% after gaining 0.1% in February. Retail inventories excluding autos, which go into the calculation of GDP, rose 0.6% after advancing 1.4% in February.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)

U.S. consumer spending falls again; inflation gradually rising

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. consumer spending fell for a second straight month in December amid renewed business restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 and a temporary expiration of government-funded benefits for millions of unemployed Americans.

The report from the Commerce Department on Friday also showed inflation steadily picking up last month. Stirring price pressures were also corroborated by other data showing a solid increase in labor costs in the fourth quarter. Though inflation is expected to breach the Federal Reserve’s 2% target this year, the U.S. central bank is seen maintaining its ultra-easy policy stance for a while as the economy battles the COVID-19 pandemic.

Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, slipped 0.2% last month as outlays at restaurants declined. Spending at hospitals also fell, likely as consumers stayed away in fear of contracting the coronavirus.

Households also cut back spending on recreation. Consumer spending tumbled 0.7% in November. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast consumer spending falling 0.4% in December.

When adjusted for inflation, consumer spending decreased 0.6% in December after dropping 0.7% in November. That likely sets a lower base for consumer spending in the first quarter.

The data was included in Thursday’s advance gross domestic product report for the fourth quarter, which showed the economy growing at a 4% annualized rate after a record 33.4% pace in the third quarter. Consumer spending rose at a 2.5% rate last quarter following a spectacular 41.0% growth pace in the July-September period.

Economic growth is expected to decelerate to below a 2% rate in the first quarter as it works through the disruptions from a virus surge in winter. The government provided nearly $900 billion in additional relief in late December. This together with an anticipated pick-up in the distribution of vaccines is likely to spur growth by summer.

President Joe Biden has also unveiled a recovery plan worth $1.9 trillion, though the package is likely to be pared down amid worries about the nation’s swelling debt.

U.S. stocks opened lower after Johnson & Johnson said its single-dose vaccine was 72% effective in preventing COVID-19 in the United States, but a lower rate of 66% was observed globally. The dollar was steady against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were lower.

INCOME REBOUNDS

The late December stimulus package included direct cash payments to some households and renewed a $300 unemployment supplement until March 14. Government-funded programs for the self-employed, gig workers and others who do not qualify for the state unemployment programs as well as those who have exhausted their benefits were also extended.

Last month, personal income rebounded 0.6%, boosted the unemployment benefits payouts as well as a rise in wages. Income tumbled 1.3% in November. Americans increased savings last month. The saving rate rose to 13.7% from 12.9% in November.

Despite weak consumer spending inflation edged higher. The personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index excluding the volatile food and energy component increased 0.3% after being unchanged in November. In the 12 months through December, the so-called core PCE price index increased 1.5% after advancing 1.4% in November.

The core PCE index is the preferred inflation measure for the Fed’s 2% target, a flexible average.

The gradually firming inflation environment was reinforced by separate report from the Labor Department on Friday showing its Employment Cost Index, the broadest measure of labor costs, rose 0.7% last quarter after advancing 0.5% in the third quarter. That lifted the year-on-year rate of increase to 2.5% from 2.4% in the third quarter.

The ECI is widely viewed by policymakers and economists as one of the better measures of labor market slack and a predictor of core inflation as it adjusts for composition and job quality changes. Economists had forecast the ECI climbing 0.5% in the fourth quarter.

Wages and salaries increased 0.9% after gaining 0.4% in the third quarter. They were up 2.6% year-on-year. The private sector accounted for the surge in wages and salaries. Benefits rose 0.6%, matching the third quarter’s increase.

Inflation is seen accelerating as weak readings last March and April drop from the calculation. It is also expected to be boosted by a strengthening in economic growth, driven by fiscal stimulus and the inoculation of more Americans against COVID-19.

Bottlenecks in the supply chain are expected to contribute to higher inflation. Recent manufacturing surveys have shown a surge in price measures for both raw materials and finished products.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Andrea Ricci)

COVID-19 wreaks havoc on U.S. economy; 2020 performance worst in 74 years

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. economy contracted at its deepest pace since World War Two in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic depressed consumer spending and business investment, pushing millions of Americans out of work and into poverty.

Though a recovery is underway, momentum slowed significantly as the year wound down amid a resurgence in coronavirus infections and exhaustion of nearly $3 trillion in relief money from the government. The moderation is likely to persist at least through the first three months of 2021.

The economy’s prospects hinge on the distribution of vaccines to fight the virus. President Joe Biden has unveiled a recovery plan worth $1.9 trillion, but some lawmakers have balked at the price tag soon after the government provided nearly $900 billion in additional stimulus in late December.

“The economy will never move further away from the edge of the cliff of recession unless there is a resurgence in final demand, meaning consumers have to come out in force to make the recovery a permanent one,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York.

Gross domestic product decreased 3.5% in 2020, the biggest drop since 1946, the Commerce Department said on Thursday. That followed 2.2% growth in 2019 and was the first annual decline in GDP since the 2007-09 Great Recession.

Nearly every sector, with the exception of government and the housing market, contracted last year. Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the economy, plunged 3.9%, the worst performance since 1932. The economy tumbled into recession last February.

Delays by the government to offer another rescue package and renewed business disruptions caused by the virus restricted GDP growth to a 4.0% annualized rate in the fourth quarter. The big step-back from a historic 33.4% growth pace in the third quarter left GDP 2.5% below its level at the end of 2019.

The economy is expected to return to its pre-pandemic level in the second quarter of this year.

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday left its benchmark overnight interest rate near zero and pledged to continue pumping money into the economy through bond purchases, noting that “the pace of the recovery in economic activity and employment has moderated in recent months.”

With the virus still raging, economists are expecting growth to slow to around a 1.0% rate in the first quarter, before regaining speed by summer as the additional stimulus kicks in and more Americans get vaccinated.

“We foresee record-breaking consumer spending growth in 2021 with households benefiting from a watered-down $1.2 trillion version of Biden’s rescue plan, vaccine diffusion gradually reaching two thirds of Americans by July and employment accelerating this spring,” said Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics in New York.

Stocks on Wall Street were trading higher. The dollar slipped against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were lower.

K-SHAPED RECOVERY

The services sector, especially restaurants, bars and hotels, has borne the brunt of the coronavirus recession, disproportionately impacting lower-wage earners, who tend to be women and minorities. That has led to a so-called K-shaped recovery, where better-paid workers are doing well while lower-paid workers are losing out.

The stars of the recovery have been the housing market and manufacturing as those who are still employed seek larger homes away from city centers, and buy electronics for home offices and schooling. Manufacturing’s share of GDP has increased to 11.9% from 11.6% at the end of 2019.

A survey by professors at the University of Chicago and the University of Notre Dame showed poverty increased by 2.4 percentage points to 11.8% in the second half of 2020, boosting the ranks of the poor by 8.1 million people.

Rising poverty was underscored by persistent labor market weakness. In a separate report on Thursday, the Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment benefits totaled a seasonally adjusted 847,000 for the week ended Jan. 23. While that was down 67,000 from the prior week, claims remain well above their 665,000 peak during the 2007-09 Great Recession.

Including a government-funded program for the self-employed, gig workers and others who do not qualify for the regular state unemployment programs 1.3 million people filed claims last week.

The economy shed jobs in December for the first time in eight months. Only 12.4 million of the 22.2 million jobs lost in March and April have been recovered. About 18.3 million Americans were receiving unemployment checks in early 2021.

“The labor market is struggling this winter, but better times are ahead,” said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Lack of jobs and the temporary expiration of a government weekly jobless subsidy curtailed growth in consumer spending to a 2.5% rate in the fourth quarter after a record 41% pace in the July-September quarter.

But business investment grew at a 13.8% rate, with spending on equipment rising at a 24.9% pace. Spending on nonresidential structures rebounded after four straight quarterly declines.

Businesses also accumulated inventories last quarter, contributing to GDP growth. But the inventory build pulled in more imports, leading to a larger trade deficit, which subtracted from output. The housing market recorded another quarter of double-digit growth, thanks to historically low mortgage rates. Government spending was weak.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Andrea Ricci)

Analysis: Trump or Biden, new U.S. president faces troubled economy

By Ann Saphir and Jonnelle Marte

(Reuters) – It’s still not clear yet if the next U.S. president will be incumbent Donald Trump or Democratic challenger Joe Biden, but whoever triumphs will face monumental challenges on the economic front.

The recession has been ugly. It has wiped away more than a year of economic output and more than five years of jobs growth.

The workforce is now smaller than it was a year before Trump first took office.

One bright spot – consumer spending – is stronger than it was right after the pandemic exploded in March, but still only back to where it was last June.

Housing prices are on the rise, which is a great thing for U.S. homeowners but at the same time is worsening the affordability crisis for aspiring home buyers.

Manufacturing activity – a key concern in the Midwestern battleground states – has rebounded, but manufacturing employment is in worse shape than employment overall.

And the coronavirus is still surging across most of the United States. Nearly 6,000 people died last week, and there’s growing concern that the U.S. might need to reinstate lockdowns that happened across Europe in order to get it under control.

But despite signs the economy has begun to slow again amid another viral onslaught, “it is almost certain that the economy will get better over the course of 2021,” says Jason Furman, a key economic advisor to Barack Obama, the last U.S. president elected during a time of economic turmoil.

Late 2021 is still a long ways away, not just in political terms but for those living paycheck to paycheck, or out of work.

Federal Reserve policymaker projections put unemployment at 5.5% by the end of next year – worse than the 4.7% when Trump was first elected, but an improvement over the current 7.9%.

Beyond jobs lost and economic output curtailed, either Trump or Biden will face a list of long-term headwinds including deepening inequality, rising federal debt and tattered international trade relations.

In the run-up to the election, Trump consistently polled better than Biden on his ability to create jobs and manage the economy, if not the virus.

But even with the election outcome uncertain, and likely to remain so for some time amid legal challenges, stock market investors like what they see.

That’s partly because Republicans look likely to keep their hold on the Senate, leaving policy priorities relatively unchanged if it’s Trump emerging the winner, or as preventive force to a president Biden from trying to push through any big policy changes should he come out on top in the ballot box.

It’s also because Senate Majority Leader Republican Mitch McConnell signaled Wednesday he was open to a new coronavirus aid bill in the “lame duck” session before the elected members of Senate and U.S. House of Representatives are sworn in.

For the still-weak economy, a lot will depend on the timing, size and shape of a pandemic relief package, which eluded lawmakers and the White House before the election.

A more modest fiscal package could mean “the growth outlook and corporate profits may not be as vigorous as hoped,” said James Knightley, chief international economist for ING.

A Biden presidency with a majority Republican Senate could offer the worst case for the economy in 2021 because Republicans are likely to oppose a substantial stimulus package, said Matthew Luzzetti, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank.

That would be bad news for the millions of low- and middle-income Americans out of work and struggling to find jobs in sectors such as travel and entertainment that are likely to remain moribund until the pandemic is under better control.

A scenario where Trump is re-elected and the Senate stays in Republican control could potentially result in more stimulus because Trump has advocated for more stimulus and could have more sway if he is re-elected, Luzzetti said.

Whatever the election outcome, any aid package should provide additional assistance for the unemployed, help for small businesses and assistance for state and local governments, to keep economic momentum going, Luzzetti said.

(Reporting by Ann Saphir and Jonnelle Marte; Editing by Heather Timmons, Paul Simao and Edward Tobin)

Americans on COVID-19 jobless benefits spent more than when working, study shows

By Jonnelle Marte

(Reuters) – Americans who received enhanced unemployment benefits due to the coronavirus pandemic spent more than when they were working, a study released on Thursday said, adding to concerns about a steep fall in spending when the emergency benefits expire.

The $600 weekly supplement added to jobless benefits as part of the CARES Act helped unemployed households spend 10% more after receiving benefits than they did before the pandemic, according to research by the JP Morgan Chase Institute.

Researchers analyzed transactions for 61,000 households that received unemployment benefits between March and May. Spending dropped for all households as the virus spread and led to business shutdowns, but then rose when households began receiving jobless benefits, the study found.

That contrasts with a typical recession, when households receiving unemployment benefits usually cut spending by 7% because regular jobless benefits amount to only a fraction of a person’s prior earnings, the research found.

The analysis highlighted how the additional unemployment benefits are helping to prop up the U.S. economy and consumer spending after the pandemic led to a surge in joblessness across the country.

More than 30 million Americans are estimated to be receiving unemployment benefits – and they could be pushed off an income cliff when the supplemental benefits, which are due to expire at the end of July, are withdrawn.

“Our estimates suggest that expiration will result in large spending cuts, with potentially negative effects on both households and macroeconomic activity,” the researchers wrote.

The data also reflected the financial pain faced by households that encountered big delays in collecting benefits after states across the country were overwhelmed by applications.

Households that had to wait several weeks for their first unemployment check to arrive cut spending by about 20%, the study found. Spending recovered after the checks arrived.

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte; editing by Richard Pullin)

U.S. consumer spending strong; manufacturing struggling

FILE PHOTO: People tour The Shops during the grand opening of The Hudson Yards development, a residential, commercial, and retail space on Manhattan's West side in New York City, New York, U.S., March 15, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. retail sales surged in July as consumers bought a range of goods even as they cut back on motor vehicle purchases, which could help to assuage financial market fears that the economy was heading into recession.

The upbeat report from the Commerce Department on Thursday, however, will likely not change expectations that the Federal Reserve will cut interest rates again next month as news from the manufacturing sector remains dour, underscoring the darkening outlook for the economy against the backdrop of trade tensions and slowing growth overseas.

A key part of the U.S. Treasury yield curve inverted on Wednesday for the first time since June 2007, triggering a stock market sell-off. An inverted Treasury yield curve is historically a reliable predictor of looming recessions.

Financial markets have fully priced in a 25-basis-point rate cut at the U.S. central bank’s Sept. 17-18 policy meeting. The Fed lowered its short-term interest rate by a quarter of a percentage point last month, citing the acrimonious U.S.-China trade war and slowing global economies.

But the data could push markets to dial back expectations of a 50-basis-point rate cut next month.

“So yes, consumers are lifting economic growth and easing pressure on the Federal Reserve to cut more aggressively, but the trade war itself, and the rhetoric that accompanies it will push for more rate cuts,” said Jennifer Lee, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets in Toronto.

Retail sales increased 0.7% last month after gaining 0.3% in June, the government said. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast retail sales would rise 0.3% in July. Compared to July last year, retail sales increased 3.4%.

Excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, retail sales jumped 1.0% last month after advancing by an unrevised 0.7% in June. These so-called core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product.

U.S. stock index futures extended gains after the release of the data. U.S. Treasury yields rose while the dollar <.DXY> was slightly weaker against a basket of currencies.

STRONG LABOR MARKET

July’s gain in core retail sales suggested strong consumer spending early in the third quarter, though the pace will likely slow from the April-June quarter’s robust 4.3% annualized rate. Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the economy, is being underpinned by the lowest unemployment rate in nearly half a century.

While a separate report from the Labor Department on Thursday showed an increase in the number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits last week, the trend in claims continued to point to a strong labor market.

Solid consumer spending is blunting some of the hit on the economy from the downturn in manufacturing, which is underscored by weak business investment. There are, however, red flags for the labor market coming from manufacturing.

The sector’s struggles were highlighted by a third report from the Fed on Thursday showing factory production dropped 0.4% in July. Output at factories has declined more than 1.5% since December 2018. Manufacturing, which makes up about 12% of the economy, is also being weighed down by an inventory overhang, especially in the automotive sector.

Manufacturing productivity tumbled at its fastest pace in nearly two years in the second quarter, with factories cutting hours for workers, another report from the Labor Department showed.

Manufacturing’s troubles appear to have persisted into the third quarter. Though a report from the Philadelphia Fed on Thursday showed factory activity in the mid-Atlantic region slowed less than expected in August amid an increase in new orders, manufacturers reported hiring fewer workers.

A measure of factory employment dropped to its lowest level since November 2016. The weakness in factory employment in the region that covers eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware was mirrored by another survey from the New York Fed. Activity in New York state was little changed this month, with employment measures deteriorating further.

“The health of factories is still an important driver of growth and the soft patch for production remains a factor that is keeping economic growth in the slow lane,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York.

The economy grew at a 2.1% rate in the second quarter, decelerating from the first quarter’s 3.1% pace. Growth estimates for the third quarter are below a 2.0% rate.

In July, auto sales fell 0.6% after rising 0.3% in June. Receipts at service stations rebounded 1.8%, reflecting higher gasoline prices. Sales at building material stores gained 0.2%.

Receipts at clothing stores increased 0.8%. Online and mail-order retail sales jumped 2.8%, the most in six months, after rising 1.9% in June. They were likely boosted by Amazon.com Inc’s <AMZN.O> Prime Day.

Receipts at furniture stores rose 0.3%. Sales at restaurants and bars accelerated 1.1%. But spending at hobby, musical instrument and book stores dropped 1.1% last month.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)

U.S. economy slows in second quarter; consumer spending accelerates

FILE PHOTO: Shoppers carry bags of purchased merchandise at the King of Prussia Mall in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, U.S., December 8, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Makela/File Photo

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. economic growth slowed less than expected in the second quarter as a surge in consumer spending blunted some of the drag from declining exports and a smaller inventory build, which could further allay concerns about the economy’s health.

The fairly upbeat report from the Commerce Department on Friday will probably not deter the Federal Reserve from cutting interest rates next Wednesday for the first time in a decade, given rising risks to the economy’s outlook, especially from a trade war between the United States and China.

Despite the better-than-expected GDP reading, business investment contracted for the first time in more than three years and housing contracted for a sixth straight quarter. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell early this month flagged business investment and housing as areas of weakness in the economy.

But robust consumer spending, together with a strong labor market, further diminish expectations of a 50 basis point rate cut and could raise doubts about further monetary policy easing this year.

Gross domestic product increased at a 2.1% annualized rate in the second quarter, the government said. The economy grew at an unrevised 3.1% pace in the January-March quarter. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast GDP increasing at a 1.8% rate in the second quarter.

The economy has expanded for 10 years, the longest run in history. Activity is slowing largely as the stimulus from the White House’s $1.5 trillion tax cut package fades. The tax cuts together with more government spending and deregulation were part of measures adopted by the Trump administration to boost annual economic growth to 3.0% on a sustained basis.

The economy grew 2.9% in 2018 and growth this year is expected to be around 2.5%. Economists estimate the speed at which the economy can grow over a long period without igniting inflation at between 1.7% and 2.0%.

The GDP report showed a pickup in inflation last quarter, though the trend remained benign. A gauge of inflation tracked by the Fed increased at a 1.8% rate last quarter, just below the U.S. central bank’s 2% target. Inflation increased 1.5% compared the second quarter of 2018.

The government also published revisions to GDP data from 2014 through 2018. The updated data showed growth in the second and third quarters of last year was not as robust as previously estimated, and the economy grew much more slowly in the fourth quarter than had been reported in March. Revised price data showed moderate inflation last year.

The dollar extended gains versus a basket of currencies after the data, while prices for U.S. Treasury fell. U.S. stock index futures pared gains.

STRONG CONSUMER SPENDING

Growth in consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, surged at a 4.3% rate in the second quarter, the fastest since the fourth quarter of 2017. Consumer spending grew at a 1.1% rate in the first quarter.

Some of the slowdown in consumer spending early in the year was blamed on a 35-day partial shutdown of the government.

Spending is being supported by the lowest unemployment rate in nearly 50 years, which is lifting wages.

The jump in consumer spending helped to offset some of the weakness from exports, which fell at a 5.2% rate last quarter, in a reversal of the strong growth experienced in the first quarter.

The plunge in exports caused a deterioration of the trade deficit. As result, trade subtracted 0.65 percentage point from GDP growth last quarter after contributing 0.73 percentage point in the January-March period.

The acceleration in consumer spending also helped businesses to whittle down an inventory overhang, leading to a smaller inventory build.

Inventory investment increased at a $71.7 billion rate, slowing from the first quarter’s $116.0 billion pace of increase. While inventories cut 0.86 percentage point from GDP growth in the second quarter, the smaller pace of stock accumulation is a potential boost to manufacturing.

Businesses have been placing fewer orders with factories while working through stockpiles of unsold goods, which contributed to undercutting manufacturing production. Inventories added 0.53 percentage point to GDP growth in the first quarter.

Business investment fell at a 0.6% rate in the second quarter, the first contraction since the first quarter of 2016. It was pulled down by a 10.6% pace of decline in spending on structures, which includes oil and gas well drilling.

Investment in structures was depressed by decreases in commercial and healthcare, and mining exploration, shafts and wells. Spending on intellectual products, including research and development, increased. Business spending on equipment rebounded at a 0.7% rate in the second quarter. It is seen constrained by design problems at aerospace giant Boeing.

Boeing reported its biggest-ever quarterly loss on Wednesday due to the spiraling cost of resolving issues with its 737 MAX airplane and warned it might have to shut production of the grounded jet completely if it runs into new hurdles with global regulators to getting its best-selling aircraft back in the air.

The plane was grounded worldwide in March after two fatal crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia. Production of the aircraft has been reduced and deliveries suspended.

Growth in government investment accelerated, notching its best performance in 10 years, but spending on homebuilding contracted for a sixth straight quarter.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

Americans job market tightening, inflation steadily rising

FILE PHOTO: A help wanted sign is posted on the door of a gas station in Encinitas California

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits fell last week, pointing to sustained labor strength even as economic growth appears to have slowed early in the first quarter.

Other data on Thursday showed a rise in the prices of imported goods in February amid U.S. dollar weakness, bolstering expectations that inflation will pick up this year. Labor market strength and a steady increase in price pressures could allow the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates next week.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 4,000 to a seasonally adjusted 226,000 for the week ended March 10, the Labor Department said on Thursday. Claims decreased to 210,000 during the week ended Feb. 24, which was the lowest level since December 1969.

Last week’s drop in claims was in line with economists’ expectations. It was the 158th straight week that claims remained below the 300,000 threshold, which is associated with a strong labor market. That is the longest such stretch since 1970, when the labor market was much smaller.

Fed officials consider the labor market to be near or a little beyond full employment. The unemployment rate is at a 17-year low of 4.1 percent.

The economy created 313,000 jobs in February. Economists are optimistic that tightening labor market conditions will boost wage growth in the second half of this year.

That should help to underpin consumer spending, which slowed at the start of the year. Data on Wednesday showed retail sales fell in February for a third straight month.

Gross domestic product growth estimates for the first quarter are as low as a 1.7 percent annualized rate. Reports on home sales and industrial production in January have also been weak. The economy grew at a 2.5 percent pace in the fourth quarter.

The U.S. dollar gained against a basket of currencies after Thursday’s data while U.S. stock index futures moved higher. Prices of U.S. Treasuries were trading mostly lower. Diminishing labor market slack is also expected to help boost inflation toward the U.S. central bank’s 2 percent target.

IMPORTED CAPITAL GOODS PRICES RISE

In another report, the Labor Department said import prices increased 0.4 percent last month after accelerating 0.8 percent in January. That lifted the year-on-year increase in import prices to 3.5 percent from January.

Last month, prices for imported capital goods jumped 0.6 percent. That was the biggest increase since April 2008 and followed an unchanged reading in January.

Prices of imported consumer goods excluding automobiles rose 0.5 percent, the largest gain since January 2014, after edging up 0.1 percent in the prior month. These price increases likely reflected the dollar’s depreciation against the currencies of the United States’ main trading partners, and will eventually filter through to core producer and consumer inflation.

Imported petroleum prices fell 0.5 percent in February, the first drop in seven months, after rising 3.0 percent in January. Import prices excluding petroleum surged 0.5 percent after a similar gain in January.

The price of goods imported from China rose 0.2 percent. Prices for imports from China increased 0.3 percent in the 12 months through February, the biggest advance since June 2014.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)