Markets & Finance

Vital Signs: Will Economic Growth Hold Up?


On deck: April ISM nonmanufacturing index, first-quarter productivity, and March reports on pending home sales and international trade

With only a couple of key reports to go, the books on the economy's first-quarter performance are almost closed. The surprise from last quarter was that, on balance, overall economic growth held up a little better than expected, and most reports still do not suggest a severe recession. The question now: How much buoyancy can we expect from the economy in the current quarter?

The only second-quarter report due this week is the Institute for Supply Management's index of nonmanufacturing activity. The index has held close to 50, the dividing line between expansion and contraction, in both February and March. The update on productivity will be interesting for what it says about business efforts to control costs, especially labor costs, and the March data on pending home sales will foreshadow the report on sales of existing homes, due in two weeks.

Finally, the markets will be looking at Friday's update on foreign trade for what it might imply for a possible revision to the government's initial estimate of first-quarter GDP, which was put together before those March data were in hand.

Clearly, last quarter's 0.6% growth rate for real GDP was weaker than it looked. Overall demand actually slipped 0.2%, something that rarely happens outside of a recession, and a swing in the growth of inventories accounted for the positive top-line reading. It's tempting to read that pattern as an involuntary accumulation of stockpiles due to weak demand that might require sharp cutbacks in output in the second quarter.

However, that inventory swing occurred because businesses had cut their stockpiles by a sharp $18.3 billion in the fourth quarter, the largest liquidation in six years. In the first quarter, the level of inventories rose only by a scant $1.8 billion. Stockpiles are actually down from their third quarter level, and over the past year inventories have increased only 0.3%, while overall demand is up 2.4%. This picture suggests inventories entered the second quarter in fairly good alignment with sales, and that efforts to eliminate excessive stockpiles will not be a major source of weakness for second quarter GDP.

The bigger worry for the second quarter is spending, especially by consumers and businesses. Last quarter, 44% of the increase in consumer spending went to two items: food and energy. Despite all the other headwinds consumers face, this drain on purchasing power remains the biggest problem for household spending, as it cuts into purchases of other more discretionary items. That drag will be persistent in the second quarter.

Moreover, businesses cut back on outlays for both equipment and construction in the first quarter, suggesting companies are pulling back on their hiring and expansion plans. There's a good chance that domestic spending in the second quarter will be even weaker than it was in the first quarter.

Here's the weekly economic calendar, from Action Economics.

Top Economic Reports

Reports

Date

Time

For

Median Estimate

Last Period

ISM Index (Nonmanufacturing)

Monday, May 5

10:00 a.m.

April

49.5

49.6

Nonfarm Productivity

Wednesday, May 7

8:30 a.m.

Q1

1.1%

1.9%

Unit Labor Costs

Wednesday, May 7

8:30 a.m.

Q1

2.9%

2.6%

Consumer Credit ($Billions)

Wednesday, May 7

3:00 p.m.

March

6.0

5.2

Wholesale Trade Sales

Thursday, May 8

10:00 a.m.

March

0.6%

-0.8%

International Trade Balance ($Billions)

Friday, May 9

8:30 a.m.

March

-61.2

-62.3

Exports, Goods and Services ($Billions)

Friday, May 9

8:30 a.m.

March

153.0

151.4

Imports, Goods and Services ($Billions)

Friday, May 9

8:30 a.m.

March

214.1

213.7

Other Reports and Events

Reports

Date

Time

For

ICSC-UBS Store Sales

Tuesday, May 6

7:45 a.m.

Apr. 27-May 3

Johnson Redbook Weekly Store Sales

Tuesday, May 6

8:55 a.m.

Apr. 27-May 3

SPEECH: Kansas City Fed President Hoenig

Tuesday, May 6

9:30 a.m.

Mortgage Applications

Wednesday, May 7

7:00 a.m.

Apr. 27-May 3

Pending Home Sales

Wednesday, May 7

10:00 a.m.

March

Initial Unemployment Claims

Thursday, May 8

8:30 a.m.

Apr. 27-May 3

SPEECH: Former Fed Chairman Greenspan

Thursday, May 8

12:30 p.m.

Earnings Calendar

Company

Report Date

Citizens Communications

Monday, May 5

McKesson

Monday, May 5

Principal Financial Group

Monday, May 5

Vulcan Materials

Monday, May 5

Anadarko Petroleum

Monday, May 5

Liz Claiborne

Monday, May 5

CMS Energy

Monday, May 5

NYSE Euronext

Tuesday, May 6

Covidien

Tuesday, May 6

Tenet Healthcare

Tuesday, May 6

Emerson Electric

Tuesday, May 6

DR Horton

Tuesday, May 6

Spectra Energy

Tuesday, May 6

RR Donnelly & Sons

Tuesday, May 6

Qwest Communications International

Tuesday, May 6

Public Service Enterprise Group

Tuesday, May 6

Walt Disney Co.

Tuesday, May 6

Cisco Systems

Tuesday, May 6

Precision Castparts

Tuesday, May 6

American Capital Strategies

Tuesday, May 6

Vornado Realty Trust

Tuesday, May 6

Estee Lauder Cos.

Tuesday, May 6

PG&E

Tuesday, May 6

Molson Coors Brewing

Tuesday, May 6

Federal National Mortgage Association

Tuesday, May 6

Pitney Bowes

Tuesday, May 6

Sara Lee

Tuesday, May 6

Harman International Industries

Tuesday, May 6

Marsh & McMennan

Wednesday, May 7

Transocean

Wednesday, May 7

Hospira

Wednesday, May 7

Cognizant Technology Solutions

Wednesday, May 7

News Corp.

Wednesday, May 7

Allergan (U.S.)

Wednesday, May 7

Titanium Metals

Wednesday, May 7

DIRECTTV Group

Wednesday, May 7

Teradata

Thursday, May 8

King Pharmaceuticals

Thursday, May 8

Dynegy

Thursday, May 8

Celgene

Thursday, May 8

VeriSign

Thursday, May 8

American International Group

Thursday, May 8

Progress Energy

Thursday, May 8

Barr Pharmaceuticals

Thursday, May 8

Nvidia

Thursday, May 8

El Paso

Thursday, May 8

Tesoro

Thursday, May 8

Edison International

Thursday, May 8

Pepco Holdings

Thursday, May 8

Clear Channel Communications

Friday, May 9

Legg Mason

Friday, May 9

Leucadia National

Friday, May 9

Windstream

Friday, May 9


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