US economic growth slows moderately in fourth quarter

US economy slows less than expected amid solid consumer and business spending.

    People walk with shopping bags at Roosevelt Field mall in Garden City [File: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters]
    People walk with shopping bags at Roosevelt Field mall in Garden City [File: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters]

    The United States economy slowed less than expected in the fourth quarter amid solid consumer and business spending, leaving 2018 growth just shy of the Trump administration's three percent annual target.

    The Commerce Department's gross domestic product (GDP) report on Thursday offered the latest assessment of the effect of President Donald Trump's economic policies, including deregulation, tax cuts, increased government spending and tariffs aimed at securing more favourable trade deals.

    Trump has touted the economy as one of the biggest achievements of his presidency and declared last July that his administration had "accomplished an economic turnaround of historic proportions".

    The GDP increased at a 2.6 percent annualised rate in the fourth quarter after expanding at a 3.4 percent pace in the July-September period. The economy grew 2.9 percent in 2018, powered by the White House's $1.5 trillion tax cut and increased government spending. It was the best performance since 2015 and better than the 2.2 percent logged in 2017.

    Despite the economy's strong performance in the last quarter and in 2018, there are indications activity is softening, with most manufacturing measures weakening in January and February.

    The labour market is also showing signs of cooling, with a report from the Labor Department on Thursday showing the number of Americans drawing unemployment benefits rising to a 10-month high in the week which ended on February 16.

    The economy is slowing as the boost from fiscal stimulus fades. Growth is also being restrained by a trade war between the US and China.

    The slowdown comes at a time when the economy's outlook is also being clouded by signs of weakening global demand and uncertainty over Britain's departure from the European Union.

    These factors support the Federal Reserve's "patient" stance towards raising interest rates further this year. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell reaffirmed the US central bank's position in his testimonies before members of Congress on Tuesday and Wednesday.

    The dollar trimmed losses against a basket of currencies on the GDP data, while US Treasury yields rose. US stock index futures slightly pared losses.

    Solid consumer spending

    The fourth-quarter GDP report was delayed by a 35-day partial shutdown of the government that ended on January 25, which affected the collection and processing of economic data.

    The Commerce Department said while it could not quantify the full effects of the shutdown, it estimated the partial closure had subtracted about one-tenth of a percentage point from fourth-quarter GDP growth through "a reduction in the labour services supplied by federal employees and reduction in intermediate purchases of goods and services by non-defence agencies."

    Growth in consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of US economic activity, increased at a still-strong 2.8 percent rate in the fourth quarter. Consumer spending grew at a robust 3.5 percent rate in the third quarter.

    Trade tensions with China could constrain the economy for a while. US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told politicians on Wednesday that Washington's issues with China were "too serious" to be resolved with promises from Beijing to buy more American goods and a threat of higher tariffs could loom over trade with China for years.

    The trade dispute has combined with a strong dollar and weakening global demand to restrain export growth. It also led cautious businesses to hoard imports, causing the trade deficit to widen.

    The trade shortfall subtracted 0.22 percentage points from fourth-quarter GDP growth after slicing off two percentage points in the July-September period. With consumer spending slowing, some of the imports probably ended up in warehouses.

    This accelerated inventory accumulation, which offset some of the drag on GDP growth from the trade deficit.

    Inventories increased at a $97.1bn rate in the fourth quarter after rising at an $89.8 billion pace in the July-September quarter. Inventory investment added 0.13 percentage point to GDP growth last quarter after contributing 2.33 percentage points in the prior period.

    Business spending on equipment accelerated in the fourth quarter from the prior period, growing at a 6.7 percent rate. It had slowed since the first quarter of 2018.

    Residential construction contracted at a 3.5 percent rate, marking the fourth-straight quarterly decline. Home-building has been weighed down by higher mortgage rates, land and labour shortages as well tariffs on imported lumber.

    Government investment increased at a 0.4 percent rate, the slowest since the third quarter of 2017.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency