May 20, 2024

The nation’s economy slowed sharply last quarter to a 1.6% annual pace in the face of high interest rates, but consumers — the main driver of economic growth — kept spending at a solid pace. Thursday’s report from the Commerce Department said the gross domestic product — the economy’s total output of goods and services — decelerated in the January-March quarter from its brisk 3.4% growth rate in the final three months of 2023.

A surge in imports, which are subtracted from GDP, reduced first-quarter growth by nearly 1 percentage point. Growth was also held back by businesses reducing their inventories. Both those categories tend to fluctuate sharply from quarter to quarter.

By contrast, the core components of the economy still appear sturdy. Along with households, businesses helped drive the economy last quarter with a strong pace of investment.

The import and inventory numbers can be volatile, so “there is still a lot of positive underlying momentum,’’ said Paul Ashworth, chief North America economist at Capital Economics.

The economy, though, is still creating price pressures, a continuing source of concern for the Federal Reserve. A measure of inflation in Friday’s report accelerated to a 3.4% annual rate from January through March, up from 1.8% in the last three months of 2023 and the biggest increase in a year. Excluding volatile food and energy prices, so-called core inflation rose at a 3.7% rate, up from 2% in the fourth quarter of 2023.

From January through March, consumer spending rose at a 2.5% annual rate, a solid pace though down from a rate of more than 3% in each of the previous two quarters. Americans’ spending on services — everything from movie tickets and restaurant meals to airline fares and doctors’ visits — rose 4%, the fastest such pace since mid-2021. But they cut back spending on goods such as appliances and furniture. Spending on that category fell 0.1%, the first such drop since the summer of 2022.

Gregory Daco, chief economist at the tax and consulting firm EY, noted that the underlying economy looks solid, though it’s slowing from last year’s unexpectedly fast pace. The rise in imports that accounted for much of the drop in first-quarter growth, he noted, is “a sign of solid demand” by American consumers for foreign goods. Still, Daco said that the economy’s “momentum is cooling.”

“It’s unlikely to be a major retrenchment,” he said, “but we are likely to see cooler economic momentum as a result of consumers exercising more scrutiny with their outlays.’’ The state of the U.S. economy has seized Americans’ attention as the election season has intensified. Although inflation has slowed sharply from a peak of 9.1% in 2022, prices remain well above their pre-pandemic levels.

Republican critics of President Joe Biden have sought to pin responsibility for high prices on Biden and use it as a cudgel to derail his reelection bid. And polls show that despite the healthy job market, a near-record-high stockmarket and the sharp pullback in inflation, many Americans blame Biden for high prices. Last quarter’s GDP snapped a streak of six straight quarters of at least 2% annual growth. The 1.6% rate of expansion was also the slowest since the economy actually shrank in the first and second quarters of 2022.

The economy’s gradual slowdown reflects, in large part, the much higher borrowing rates for home and auto loans, credit cards, and many business loans that have resulted from the 11 interest rate hikes the Fed imposed in its drive to tame inflation. Even so, the United States has continued to outpace the rest of the world’s advanced economies.

The International Monetary Fund has projected that the world’s largest economy will grow 2.7% for all of 2024, up from 2.5% last year and more than double the growth the IMF expects this year for Germany, France, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Businesses have been pouring money into factories, warehouses, and other buildings, encouraged by federal incentives to manufacture computer chips and green technology in the United States.

On the other hand, their spending on equipment has been weak. And as imports outpace exports, international trade is also thought to have been a drag on the economy’s first-quarter growth. Kristalina Georgieva, the IMF’s managing director, cautioned last week that the “flipside″ of strong U.S. economic growth was that it was “taking longer than expected” for inflation to reach the Fed’s 2% target, although price pressures have sharply slowed from their mid-2022 peak.

Inflation flared up in the spring of 2021 as the economy rebounded with unexpected speed from the COVID-19 recession, causing severe supply shortages. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 made things significantly worse by inflating prices for the energy and grains the world depends on.

The Fed responded by aggressively raising its benchmark rate between March 2022 and July 2023. Despite widespread predictions of a recession, the economy has proved unexpectedly durable. Hiring so far this year is even stronger than it was in 2023. And unemployment has remained below 4% for 26 straight months, the longest such streak since the 1960s.

Inflation, the main source of Americans’ discontent about the economy, has slowed from 9.1% in June 2022 to 3.5%. But progress has stalled lately.

Though the Fed’s policymakers signaled last month that they expect to cut rates three times this year, they have lately signaled that they’re in no hurry to reduce rates in the face of continued inflationary pressure. Now, a majority of Wall Street traders don’t expect them to start until the Fed’s September meeting, according to the CME FedWatch tool.

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