Economists Expect Big Jump In 2Q GDP - We’ll See

FORECASTS & TRENDS E-LETTER
by Gary D. Halbert
May 16, 2017

IN THIS ISSUE:

1.  First Trust Predicts Strong 2Q Economic Rebound

2.  There Are Reasons to be Optimistic, But Not 3.5% GDP

3.  Atlanta Fed Forecasting 3.6% 2Q GDP, But Very Volatile

4.  Will Fed Hike Interest Rates at June 14-15 Policy Meeting?

5. “Alpha Advantage” Strategy Already Up Double Digits in 2017

Overview

For reasons that are not yet clear to me, a growing number of economists and forecasters are predicting a big jump in the economy in the current April-June quarter. Some are expecting 2Q GDP to rise by 3.0-3.5%. I’m not sure why, but that’s what we’ll focus on today.

You will recall that the economy disappointed badly in the 1Q with anemic growth of only 0.7% (annual rate) according to the Commerce Department. I should point out that the Commerce Department has under-estimated GDP growth in the 1Q for a number of years now. Yet remember that for all of 2016, the economy grew by only 1.6%.

You may also recall that the US economy failed to grow by 3% in a single year during the eight years of President Obama. This hasn’t happened in decades. Yet forecasters are increasingly telling us that GDP growth will somehow surge to 3.0-3.5% in the current quarter. I don’t buy it.

Nonetheless, I will summarize the positive thinking regarding a big jump in the economy for you in the pages that follow, and then you can decide if you are buying into this newfound optimism, or if you remain skeptical as I am.

Don’t get me wrong, I sincerely hope that the US economy is about to leap ahead. I just don’t see it in the numbers so far. I’ll begin by summarizing the positive outlook of a widely-followed forecaster. Let’s get started.

First Trust Predicts Strong 2Q Economic Rebound

First Trust is a large, well-known investment banking conglomerate headquartered in the US.  Like many large investment banks, First Trust puts out a weekly economic newsletter which is prepared by some very smart people.

Brian Wesbury, Chief Economist at First Trust, and his staff publish their “Monday Morning Outlook” each week, and they are among the crowd that believes the US economy is about to experience a big jump in the 2Q.

Before I summarize their latest analysis, let me qualify it by saying that Brian and his team are not wildly bullish on the US economy, but they do believe we are seeing a significant jump in GDP in the 2Q. Here’s their latest thinking.

For the last couple of years at least, Wesbury and his team have dubbed this slow recovery as the “Plow Horse Economy” – meaning slow but steady growth. While they admit that the weaker than expected 0.7% GDP growth in the 1Q was disappointing, they emphasize that GDP expanded by 1.9% for the 12 months ended March – very near the post-recession trend.

US Gross Domestic Product

They also point out that “core” GDP, which excludes inventories, government spending and trade with the rest of the world, grew at a 2.2% pace in the 1Q and is up 2.8% from a year ago.

Wesbury sees other signs of a pickup in economic growth ahead. Business fixed investment soared in the 1Q, growing at a 9.4% annual rate, the fastest pace for any quarter since 2013. And corporate profits are accelerating. With roughly 60% of the S&P 500 companies having reported for the Q1 so far, earnings are up over 15% from a year ago.

Meanwhile, home building grew at a 13.7% annual rate in the Q1, the fastest pace for any quarter since 2015. Although the recovery in home building is almost seven years old, Wesbury expects gains in housing to continue for at least the next couple of years as builders battle pent-up demand from population growth and years of under-building.

Wesbury admits that consumer spending grew at a disappointing 0.3% annual rate in the 1Q, but he sees signs of a hearty rebound in the current quarter. First, autos sales were unusually weak in the 1Q, in part due to an unusually late March snowstorm in the East.

Second, unusually warm weather in January and February suppressed utility (heating) output, which was a drag on GDP. Third, that same warm weather may have suppressed winter clothing sales. Wesbury is confident that these patterns have reversed and economic growth is now on the rebound.

Wesbury concludes: “Although it’s still early, we are looking for real GDP to grow at a 3.5% annual rate in Q2. That would put the first half of the year at a growth rate of 2.1%, right at the Plow Horse trend. Even more important, the Trump Administration looks serious about supply-side tax cuts that will boost the economy’s long-term growth potential.”

On Wesbury’s final point, I would caution that there is no assurance that President Trump will get his tax cuts through Congress. Even if he does, it remains to be seen how significant they will be. And then it takes time for them to boost the economy.

There Are Reasons to be Optimistic, But Not 3.5% GDP

Even though the US economy expanded at the slowest rate in three years in the 1Q, and consumer spending ground to a near halt, there were some encouraging signs in the latest GDP report, as discussed above. There were some other positive developments in the 1Q which look likely to be continuing in the 2Q, but are unlikely to boost GDP growth to 3.5% as First Trust and others expect.

First of all, the US labor market is near “full employment” and consumer confidence remains near multi-year highs, suggesting that the mostly weather-induced sharp slowdown in consumer spending in the 1Q was probably temporary.

The US economy added a whopping 211,000 net new jobs in April, and the headline unemployment rate plunged to 4.4%, the lowest level in a decade. Most economists agree that the US is now at full employment, meaning the unemployment rate is not likely to go down significantly more.

US Unemployment Rate

It’s a situation where employers will have to pay up to hire, because it becomes harder to find workers. That’s why wage growth is expected to pick up. Wages grew 2.5% (annual rate) in April, which is better than in prior years but not considered robust yet. The Federal Reserve says it would like to see wage growth closer to 3.5%.

April’s jobs report showed other signs of progress. US under-employment, which includes Americans in part-time jobs, those marginally attached to the workforce, etc., hit its lowest mark in a decade too. The largest measure of underemployment known as the “U-6” rate – fell to 8.6%, which is down from 17% in 2010 and even lower than a year ago.

Job gains came across the board. Healthcare added 20,000 new positions, business services gained 39,000 jobs and hotels and restaurants brought on 55,000 more workers. Even construction, mining and manufacturing saw gains in new jobs.

Experts attribute the gains, particularly in manufacturing, to the health of the global economy, and less so to the optimism of Trump's promises for tax cuts, infrastructure spending and deregulation.

Yet despite these positive developments, experts caution that there are still areas of concern. For example, a high level of “prime age” Americans between ages 25 and 54 remain out of work for a variety of reasons. Although part-time jobs have declined, there are still 5.3 million Americans working in part-time jobs because they can’t find full-time work.

It remains to be seen if the US economy has fully emerged from the 1Q slump in the 2Q. Clearly, the 0.7% GDP reading in the 1Q was a big disappointment. However, there were some encouraging elements in the recent jobs reports. The question is, have those positive trends continued and/or accelerated in the 2Q?

We’ll see. The Commerce Department’s first estimate of 2Q GDP growth will not be released until near the end of July.

Atlanta Fed Forecasting 3.6% 2Q GDP, But Very Volatile

Another reason many economists are upping their 2Q GDP estimates is the fact that the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow Forecast has been quite strong over the last month or so. At one point, it was as high as 4.3% and currently stands at 3.6% for the 2Q.

Evolution of Atlanta Fed GDPNow

It is important to keep in mind, however, that the GDPNow Forecast is often very volatile. For instance, the GDPNow estimate for the 1Q of this year was as high as 3.4% at one point, yet the final number came in at only 0.7%. For this reason, I would not read too much into the GDPNow Forecast until we get closer to the end of the quarter.

Will Fed Hike Interest Rates at June 14-15 Policy Meeting?

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and other members of the policy-setting committee have made it clear in recent months that they intend to raise short-term interest rates at least two more times this year. Most Fed-watchers expect another rate hike at the June 14-15 meeting.

However, the much weaker than expected GDP report for the 1Q (+0.7%) has raised new questions about how the Fed should proceed. While the 1Q GDP report was indeed a clear disappointment, there were some positive elements within the report, as discussed above.

Most forecasters now believe the 1Q GDP report was an aberration rather than a trend, and I expect a majority of the Fed Open Market Committee members to agree when they meet again on June 14-15. So I expect another 0.25% hike in the Fed Funds rate target on June 15, barring some other negative news between now and then.

Fed Funds futures agree and now signal a near 90% chance of another Fed rate hike at that meeting. I’ll keep you posted as we get closer to the June 14-15 policy meeting.

“Alpha Advantage” Strategy Already Up Double Digits in 2017

It goes without saying that I wish that more of my readers would have a portion of their investment portfolios in the active-management strategies I recommend. For that reason, I constructed a multi-manager strategy that could be held in one account a few years ago.

We named this multi-manager program our “Alpha Advantage Strategy.”  This investment combines three very successful professional money managers in a single account which is held at Guggenheim. Best of all, each of the three managers can be long, short or in cash (money market) at any given time. So the strategy has the potential to make money in a rising, or falling, market environment.

I am pleased to report that our Alpha Advantage Strategy is already up double digits in 2017 through the end of April. The minimum investment is only $50,000.

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Finally, on a personal note, our oldest child, Tyler (age 27) got married last Saturday in a ceremony overlooking beautiful Lake Travis just outside of Austin. Tyler and Rebecca met in college; they are both dedicated Christians and are very active in their church. Needless to say, Mom and I are very happy for them.

That leaves us with one more to go, our daughter Jordyn (age 25). Hopefully not anytime soon though. We’d like a nice long break before our next wedding!

All the best,

Gary D. Halbert

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Forecasts & Trends E-Letter is published by ProFutures, Inc. Gary D. Halbert is the president and CEO of ProFutures, Inc. and is the editor of this publication. Information contained herein is taken from sources believed to be reliable but cannot be guaranteed as to its accuracy. Opinions and recommendations herein generally reflect the judgement of Gary D. Halbert, Mike Posey (or another named author) and may change at any time without written notice. Market opinions contained herein are intended as general observations and are not intended as specific investment advice. Readers are urged to check with their investment counselors before making any investment decisions. This electronic newsletter does not constitute an offer of sale of any securities. Gary D. Halbert, ProFutures, Inc., and its affiliated companies, its officers, directors and/or employees may or may not have investments in markets or programs mentioned herein. Past results are not necessarily indicative of future results. Reprinting for family or friends is allowed with proper credit. However, republishing (written or electronically) in its entirety or through the use of extensive quotes is prohibited without prior written consent.

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