The U.S. economy looks set to weather the headwinds from Hurricane Sandy and the budget battles in Washington after picking up speed in the third quarter.
Gross domestic product probably increased at about a 2.9 percent annual rate in July-September, according to economists from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Barclays Plc. That would be the fastest quarterly growth this year, beating the Commerce Department’s initial estimate of 2 percent.
“The economy’s momentum has picked up a bit” as the fundamentals of the private sector “are improving,” said Jan Hatzius, chief economist at Goldman Sachs in New York. He projects third-quarter expansion will be revised up to 2.8 percent, and the fourth quarter may come in at 1.7 percent.
Help is coming from a housing recovery, strengthening job market and healthier household finances that are driving gains in consumer confidence and spending. While the damage from Sandy and an anticipated tightening of fiscal policy mean growth will decelerate this quarter and next, the world’s largest economy may emerge on stronger footing in the second half of 2013.
The Bloomberg Economic Surprise Index, which compares 38 U.S. indicators with analysts’ forecasts, exceeded zero in mid- October for the first time since May and was 0.04 on Nov. 16, up from this year’s low of minus 0.4 on July 30. The projected upward revision to third-quarter GDP, due from the Commerce Department Nov. 29, will come largely from a narrower trade deficit and a bigger jump in stockpiles than initially estimated, economists said.
While the inventory-accumulation data “don’t have much carry-forward signal in them,” consumer spending in the last few months has been “heartening,” Jeffrey Lacker, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, told reporters Nov. 15 in Charleston, West Virginia. “That is a positive for growth.”
One immediate restraint is the fallout from the largest Atlantic storm ever to hit the U.S. Retail sales fell in October for the first time in four months as the hurricane hurt receipts at some stores. The 0.3 percent drop followed a 1.3 percent gain in September that was larger than previously reported.
Sandy may trim as much as 0.5 percentage point from fourth- quarter GDP, according to Hatzius, while Dean Maki, chief U.S. economist for Barclays in New York, projects a “downside risk” of as much as 0.3 point.
A bigger concern is more than $600 billion of tax increases and government spending cuts slated for the start of 2013 unless Congress acts. Maki projects about $200 billion of fiscal tightening; under these circumstances, “solid momentum” entering the final quarter of the year would give the U.S. enough of a cushion to sustain growth.
“It doesn’t make us invulnerable,” he said. “But it’s better than if the economy had already been slowing sharply and then we were hit with these types of events.” His growth forecasts include 2.9 percent for the third quarter and 2.5 percent for the fourth, followed by 1.5 percent in the first three months of 2013 and a pickup to 2 percent for April-June.
Concern over the budget showdown between President Barack Obama and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has helped push the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index down 4.8 percent since Obama’s Nov. 6 re-election.
Better times may be ahead for the stock market as the economy is showing “a pickup, a broadening out, a firing on more cylinders,” said James Paulsen, chief investment strategist in Minneapolis for Wells Capital Management, which oversees about $325 billion. Shares of American manufacturers and basic-materials producers are most likely to benefit as growth strengthens, he said.
The S&P 500 Industrials index, which includes General Electric Co. (GE:US) and Caterpillar Inc. (CAT:US), is up 5.3 percent this year, while the S&P 500 Materials index (S5MATR), with Alcoa Inc. (AA:US) and Dow Chemical Co. (DOW:US), has risen 3.6 percent.
Better-than-projected economic growth has broad implications, ranging from a continuing decline in the unemployment rate to higher company earnings than the market predicts, according to Paul Zemsky, the New York-based head of asset allocation for ING Investment Management. The S&P 500 could end 2012 in the 1,400 to 1,425 range, compared with 1,359.88 at 4 p.m. on Nov. 16 in New York, and appreciate as much as 10 percent next year, he said.
“The economy is somewhat stronger than people are giving it credit for,” said Zemsky, who helps oversee $170 billion. Once the fiscal clouds clear, “there will be plenty of opportunities for the market to run up” so “we’re definitely keeping some powder dry.”
For now, some investors are seeking safety in bonds as the year-end deadline for fiscal tightening approaches. Yields on 10-year Treasuries fell to 1.58 percent on Nov. 16 from 1.68 percent on Nov. 5.
“The fiscal cliff is being priced in because it’s the biggest risk facing the market right now,” said Priya Misra, head of U.S. rates strategy at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in New York. “Without the cliff, we would grow 2 to 2.25 percent” next year.
In the interim, some areas of the economy continue to improve. Housing -- the industry that helped trigger the last recession -- has turned the corner as borrowing costs near a record low are driving demand. Combined sales of new and existing dwellings climbed to a 5.1 million annual pace in September, up 40 percent from an all-time low in July 2010.
Home Depot Inc. (HD:US), the largest U.S. home-improvement retailer, posted third-quarter profit that topped analysts’ estimates, reflecting “the start of the path toward the healing of the housing market,” Chief Executive Officer Frank Blake said in a Nov. 13 statement.
Consumer spending, the biggest part of the economy, accelerated to a 2 percent annual rate last quarter and has reason to keep growing. The jobless rate has fallen 1 percentage point from a year ago to 7.9 percent in October, payrolls are growing faster than forecast, and Americans are turning more upbeat. The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index climbed last week to a seven-month high.
The annual pace of U.S. expansion probably will reach “the good old standard” of 3 percent within three or four years, Stanley Fischer, Bank of Israel governor and a former No. 2 at the International Monetary Fund, said in a Nov. 14 interview in Jerusalem.
Third-quarter GDP growth near 3 percent “makes us more confident” the economy can tackle any headwinds around the turn of the year, said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ Ltd. in New York. It indicates “the labor market’s underlying strength is firmer than we thought,” he said, and “the unemployment rate may fall faster than people think.”
As the holiday-shopping seasons begins, Hasbro Inc. (HAS:US)’s retail customers are “cautiously optimistic,” David Hargreaves, chief operating officer of the Pawtucket, Rhode Island-based toymaker, said during an Oct. 22 call with analysts. “Certainly consumer demand has held up pretty well.”
In contrast, business sentiment is stagnating as the lack of clarity on taxes and government spending pushes companies into a wait-and-see mode on investment. Still, some pent-up demand may be building as orders are postponed, based on comments from company executives.
“We’ve seen people speak explicitly about not placing orders until they see how things come out here at year-end,” Alexander Cutler, chief executive officer of Eaton Corp. (ETN:US), a Cleveland-based maker of industrial equipment, said Oct. 31 on a teleconference with analysts. In the event of a bipartisan agreement on the fiscal cliff, “business confidence will improve fairly rapidly.”
The fallout from Sandy also will abate. Reconstruction work could add as much as 0.75 percentage point to GDP in the first quarter of 2013, according to Goldman Sachs’ Hatzius. General Motors Co. (GM:US) and Ford Motor Co. said auto sales probably will rebound this month on deferred purchases and replacement demand. The hit to the labor market, reflected in jobless claims jumping in the week ended Nov. 10 to the highest since April 2011, may unwind in the next few weeks, economists said.
Even so, employment is far from robust. The jobless rate exceeded 8 percent for 43 months through August, the longest since 1948. It still may be between 7 percent and 8 percent by the end of next year, Fed officials projected in September.
Policy makers aren’t ruling out more stimulus for the economy just yet. Minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee’s last meeting showed a number of officials believe the central bank may need to expand its monthly purchases of bonds next year after the expiration of Operation Twist, a program to extend the maturities of assets on its balance sheet.
For the Fed, “the recent data will likely be viewed as positive but not enough,” Barclays’ Maki said. The FOMC “has a high bar before they’ll acknowledge that growth and the labor market are improving in the way that they would like.”
Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Massachusetts, is among analysts who remain cautious for now. An upward revision to GDP for July-September would continue “a pattern over the last few years with some extremely poor quarters and some quarters that are much better,” he said. “The fourth quarter looks soft,” though “conditions are in place for accelerating growth” over the longer term.
James Bullard, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, is more optimistic. He predicts the economy will expand 3.5 percent next year, up from close to 2 percent in 2012, and unemployment will fall to 7.2 percent by the end of 2013.
“Housing in particular has had a better year,” and Europe’s debt crisis “is in a pause mode here for the past several months,” Bullard told reporters Nov. 8 after a speech in St. Louis. “The headwinds we have been facing have been lessening gradually over time.”
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