U.S. Econ Watch: Searching For Clues

After at least a month-long delay, fixed income investors have finally been receiving economic data. With a number of government agencies closed due to the recent shutdown, 2019 began with a data vacuum, but now it looks like we are making up for lost time. Unfortunately, these “data delays” render some of the economic information potentially old or stale. Nevertheless, the data still offers insights as to how 2018 ended and can provide clues on any possible springboard effects for the current year.

A perfect case in point is last week’s release of the Q4 2018 real GDP report. Yes, the data is two to three months old, but the underlying components in this release can offer insights for the future. First, let’s go high level and look at some headline numbers. For Q4, the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ (BEA) initial estimate for growth was pegged at +2.6%. While this was a drop-off from the Q3 pace of +3.4%, it beats consensus forecasts by nearly half a percent. For 2018 as a whole, real GDP came in at +2.9%. This rate of expansion has been reached only two other times since 2005. On a Q4/Q4 basis, growth was pegged at +3.1%, finally eclipsing the elusive 3% threshold.

U.S. Real GDP

US Real GDP q4 2018

While recession fears have been a part of the economic dialogue, the ongoing debate seems to be more centered on what type of slowdown we should expect in 2019. The accompanying graph illustrates that growth has trailed off a bit after reaching its most recent high-water mark of +4.2% in Q2. Some further deceleration is likely. In fact, Q1 2019 real GDP will likely be held down by the aforementioned shutdown, but then snap back in Q2 as those negative effects are reversed. Overall, real GDP in the area of +2¼% is my base case for this year.

Let’s take a look at the GDP engine cylinders:

Personal consumption expenditure (PCE): Household spending rose at a +2.8% annual clip in Q4, which translated to a 1.9 percentage point (pp) contribution to growth. This component should continue to be a positive force for the economy this year.

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