U.S. economy holds up with 1.9% growth on consumer strength

UNTIED STATES gross domestic product expanded at a 1.9% annualized rate in the third quarter. / BLOOMBERG NEWS FILE PHOTO/MICHAEL NAGLE
UNTIED STATES gross domestic product expanded at a 1.9% annualized rate in the third quarter. / BLOOMBERG NEWS FILE PHOTO/MICHAEL NAGLE

WASHINGTON – A resilient American consumer helped the United States economy expand more than forecast in the third quarter, assuaging concerns for now of a more pervasive slowdown tied to weakening business investment and faltering export markets.

Gross domestic product expanded at a 1.9% annualized rate, according to Commerce Department data Wednesday that topped forecasts in a Bloomberg survey that called for 1.6% growth.

The gain mainly reflected strength in consumer spending, the biggest part of the economy, which increased at a 2.9% rate and exceeded projections for a 2.6% rise. For businesses, nonresidential fixed investment fell the most since late 2015.

Final sales to domestic purchasers rose an annualized 2% after 3.6% in the previous three months, signaling a moderation in underlying demand.

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The growth figures come just hours before Federal Reserve officials are expected to announce a third-straight interest-rate cut to support the expansion and ahead of Friday’s jobs report, which economists project will show hiring slowed further. Signs of stabilization may be a welcome sign for President Donald Trump as he campaigns on his economic record, though his trade war with China and faltering global growth have weighed on the expansion.

Investment, exports

The report’s composition showed a second-straight contraction in nonresidential investment, which fell an annualized 3% after declining 1% in the second quarter. Net exports were a slight drag on the expansion, subtracting 0.08 percentage point from growth as inventories also weighed slightly. Federal spending drove a gain in government consumption.

The report on GDP, the broadest measure of all goods and services, isn’t likely to swing the Fed’s rate decision as officials close a two-day meeting, though they may see greater consumer strength as an important sign that the economy is weathering sluggishness from overseas markets.

The International Monetary Fund recently cut its projection for global growth this year to 3%, the lowest since the financial crisis, as signs of stress menace economies from China to Europe. U.S. goods-trade figures this week showed exports and imports both fell in September to the lowest levels in more than a year.

As the longest U.S. expansion on record shows more signs of cooling, in part because of the fading effects of the 2018 fiscal stimulus, different parts of the world’s largest economy are giving mixed signals.

Disposable incomes

The unemployment rate has fallen to a half-century low, underpinning consumers and keeping sentiment readings near historical highs. Today’s report showed disposable incomes after inflation increased an annualized 2.9% after a 2.4% pace in the prior quarter.

On the flip side, manufacturing, which makes up 11% of the economy, has weakened further as a widely watched private gauge hit a 10-year low. Companies, including oil and gas exploration firms, have reined in capital outlays to preserve shareholder value.

The weakness in business investment was led by structures and equipment, which both dropped the most in more than three years. Structures contracted at a 15.3% rate, shaving nearly a half a percentage point from growth, driven by a decrease in oil and gas exploration. Computers and aircraft led the decrease for equipment.

Personal consumption contributed 1.93 point while government added 0.35 point. Residential real estate contributed to growth for the first time since the end of 2017 amid lower mortgage rates, giving a 0.18 percentage point boost as the sector rebounded to a 5.1% growth pace.

The Fed’s preferred underlying inflation measure, the personal consumption expenditures price index excluding food and energy, rose at a 2.2% annual pace in the quarter, about in line with policy makers’ 2% objective.

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  • Government consumption slowed to a 2% annualized gain, boosted by federal spending, after a 4.8% increase during the prior three months.
  • The second-quarter figures will be revised in November and December as additional source data are compiled.

Jeff Kearns is a reporter for Bloomberg News.

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