US Economy Rebounds as Consumers, Businesses Show Resilience

(Bloomberg) — The US economy rebounded following two quarterly contractions thanks in part to resilient consumers and businesses, though inflation and higher interest rates leave growth vulnerable in the coming months. 

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Gross domestic product rose at a 2.6% annualized rate in the July to September period after falling for the first two quarters, the Commerce Department’s preliminary estimate showed Thursday. Personal consumption, the biggest part of the economy, climbed at a 1.4% pace, better than forecast but still a slowdown from the prior quarter.

© Bloomberg Pickup in gross domestic product reflected sustained, yet more moderate spending

The median projection in a Bloomberg survey of economists called for a 2.4% rise in GDP and a 1% advance in personal consumption.

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That said, a key gauge of underlying demand that strips out the trade and inventories components — inflation-adjusted final sales to domestic purchasers — rose 0.5% in the third quarter, one of the slowest since the start of the pandemic.

While the details of the report showed firm business investment and continued consumer spending on services, the biggest contributor to GDP was the volatile net exports category. Government spending also rose firmly, but the housing sector was a significant drag on growth. 

Though the quarterly expansion may help alleviate concerns that the US is already in a recession, the economy’s main engine — consumer spending — remains under pressure from the highest inflation in a generation. A strong labor market and savings amassed over the course of the pandemic have so far provided Americans the wherewithal to keep spending. 

It’s unclear how long households can hold up as the Federal Reserve’s efforts to tame inflation pose headwinds to growth. In the near-term, it’s driven up mortgage rates to the highest in two decades, causing a rapid deterioration of the housing market. And in the coming year, many economists expect the central bank’s actions to ultimately push the economy into recession.

What Bloomberg Economics Says…

“A return to economic growth in the third quarter obscures continued signs of a slowdown in components that provide a cleaner signal of momentum… The Fed is likely to view the weaker components as intended consequences of its tighter monetary policy, and not as reasons to back off the tightening cycle just yet.”

— Andrew Husby and Eliza Winger, economists

To read the full note, click here

The personal consumption expenditures price index, an inflation measure followed by Fed officials, grew an annualized 4.2% in the third quarter, the slowest pace since the end of 2020. Stripping out food and energy, the index rose 4.5%. September data will be released Friday.

The S&P 500 index opened higher while short-term Treasury yields dropped.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell has said the central bank believes the US will need both a period of below trend growth and some softening in labor market conditions to reach its inflation goal. While policymakers hope to avoid a recession, the Fed’s latest forecasts have the economy growing just 0.2% in 2022 and 1.2% in 2023. 

The economy did soften in the first half of the year, but part of that weakness reflected drags from volatile categories like net exports and inventories. At the same time, the unemployment rate has retreated to a historic low and layoffs remain scant, challenging the notion that the US is in a recession.

The report likely keeps the Fed on track to raise its benchmark interest rate by 75 basis points next week for a fourth straight meeting. At the same time, policymakers are expected to discuss whether to slow the pace of hikes amid forecasts for inflation to come down next year.

The figures may also be welcomed by President Joe Biden and Democrats hoping for good news on the economy days ahead of midterm elections, though it may not be enough to make a difference this close to the vote. High inflation has dragged down Democrats’ chances of holding on to their thin congressional majorities.

Gross domestic income, one of the government’s main measures of economic activity, will be released with the second estimate of GDP in late November. The National Bureau of Economic Research’s Business Cycle Dating Committee, the official arbiter of when business cycles start and end in the US, uses the average of GDP and GDI along with a range of other economic variables to make any recession call.

QuickTake: What Are Recessions? Plus Thoughts on the Next One

The GDP data showed services spending advanced to a 2.8% annualized rate, while outlays on goods dropped 1.2%, the third straight decline. Inflation-adjusted spending data for September will be released Friday. 

How Executives See It

“The macro-environment indications of a recession are certainly increasing.” — John Greene, chief financial officer of Discover Financial Services, Oct. 25 earnings call“Short-term consumer sentiment and consumer demand are clearly reflective of a recessionary environment. While at the same time, input costs, which you would expect to come down in a recessionary environment, are still elevated.” — Marc Bitzer, chief executive officer of Whirlpool Corp., Oct. 21 earnings call“We continue to believe that 2023 demand for air travel will be robust. We currently see no signs of demand slowing as we move into the new year.” — Derek Kerr, CFO of American Airlines Group Inc., Oct. 20 earnings call

Residential investment plunged at a 26.4% annual pace, the largest decline since the onset of the pandemic, underscoring how surging mortgage rates have crushed demand for homes. Sales have been falling for months, home prices have started to drop and builder sentiment has plummeted this year.

The report showed trade added 2.77 percentage points to GDP, the largest contribution from that category since 1980. Inventories subtracted from growth.

Inflation-adjusted business investment advanced 3.7%, reflecting a robust increase in outlays for equipment and intellectual property products. At the same time, a separate report Thursday showed orders for non-defense capital goods, excluding aircraft — a proxy for business investment — dropped 0.7% in September, the most in more than a year.

According to a separate report Thursday, applications for unemployment benefits held near historically low levels. 

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–With assistance from Kristy Scheuble and Augusta Saraiva.

(Adds Bloomberg Economics comment, updates with market open)

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