In the face of persistent fears that the world could be facing a trade war and a synchronized slowdown, the U.S. economy enters June with a good deal of momentum.
Friday’s data provided convincing evidence that domestic growth remains intact even if other developed economies are slowing. A better-than-expected nonfarm payrolls report coupled with a convincing uptick in manufacturing and construction activity showed that the second half approaches with a tail wind blowing.
“The fundamentals all look very solid right now,” said Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC. “You’ve got job growth and wage gains that are supporting consumer spending, and tax cuts as well. There’s a little bit of a drag from higher energy prices, but the positives far outweigh that. Business incentives are in good shape.”
The day started off with the payrolls report showing a gain of 223,000 in May, well above market expectations of 188,000, and the unemployment rate hitting an 18-year low of 3.8 percent.
Then, the ISM manufacturing index registered a 58.7 reading — representing the percentage of businesses that report expanding conditions — that also topped Wall Street estimates. Finally, the construction spending report showed a monthly gain of 1.8 percent, a full point higher than expectations.
Put together, the data helped fuel expectations that first-quarter growth of 2.2 percent will be the low-water point of 2018.
“May’s rebound in jobs together with yesterday’s report of solid income growth and the rise in consumer confidence points to the economy functioning very well,” the National Retail Federation’s chief economist, Jack Kleinhenz, said in a statement. “Solid fundamentals in the job market are encouraging for retail spending, as employment gains generate additional income for consumers and consequently increase spending.”
The most recent slate of widely followed barometers could see economists ratchet up growth expectations.
Already, the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow tracker sees the second quarter rising by 4.8 percent. While the measure also was strongly optimistic on the first quarter as well, at one point estimating 5.4 percent growth, other gauges are positive as well.
Andrew Hunter, U.S. economist at Capital Economics, said the ISM number alone is consistent with GDP growth of better than 4 percent, though he thinks the second quarter will be in the 3 percent to 3.5 percent range.
“With global growth set to hold up fairly well in the near term, this suggests that manufacturing activity should continue to expand at a solid pace,” Hunter said in a note. “That said, if the Trump administration continues to pursue protectionist policies and provoke retaliation from other countries, the export-focused manufacturing sector would be most exposed.”
Indeed, there are a spate of headwinds still out there, and trade continues to top the list.
The White House’s decision this week to forge ahead with steel and aluminum tariffs stoked fears that the administration could be its own worst enemy on the road to 3 percent-plus growth. While the tariffs themselves are expected to have minimal economic impact on their own, fears remain that they could spark retaliatory measures and, ultimately, an all-out trade war.
Exports make up just 12.4 percent of the U.S. economy, but S&P 500 companies generate about 43 percent of their sales internationally. That’s why markets tend to recoil every time the administration saber rattles about tariffs.
Still, manufacturers remain largely upbeat.
Respondents to the ISM survey released Friday relayed mostly positive sentiments. One typical statement, from an unidentified transportation equipment firm, said, “We are currently overselling our forecast and don’t see an end to the upswing in business,” while noting that “we are very concerned” about the tariff situation and “are focusing on alternatives to Chinese sourcing.”
Others noted price pressures, while an index that tracks order backlogs hit its highest level since April 2004. The pricing index also registered its highest since April 2011, as firms noted that inflationary pressures are building heading into the second half.
That’s consistent with news out of the trucking industry, which is reporting a shortage of drivers amid huge demand for delivery vehicles.
While inflation could prompt more aggressive action in the form of Federal Reserve interest rate hikes, PNC’s Faucher sees an economy resilient enough to withstand that and other headwinds.
“The tight labor market is going to lead businesses to invest in capital that makes their workers more productive. Then you’ve got stronger government spending with the increase in discretionary spending caps,” he said. “I think we’ll see growth better than 3 percent in the final three quarters of the year.”