U.S. first quarter growth weakest in three years as consumer spending falters

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People shop at The Grove mall in Los Angeles

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. economy grew at its weakest pace in three years in the first quarter as consumer spending almost stalled, but a surge in business investment and wage growth suggested activity would regain momentum as the year progresses.

The soft patch at the start of the year is bad news for the Trump administration’s ambitions to significantly boost growth.

“It marks a rough start to the administration’s high hopes of achieving 3 percent or better growth; this is not the kind of news it was looking for to cap its first 100 days in office,” said Sal Guatieri, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets in Toronto.

Gross domestic product increased at a 0.7 percent annual rate also as the government further cut defense spending and businesses spent less on inventories, the Commerce Department said on Friday in its advance estimate. That was the weakest performance since the first quarter of 2014.

The pedestrian first-quarter growth pace is, however, not a true picture of the economy’s health. Wage growth in the first quarter was the fastest in 10 years as the labor market nears full employment and business investment on equipment was the strongest since the third quarter of 2015.

Also underscoring the economy’s underlying strength, consumer and business confidence are near multi-year highs. First-quarter GDP tends to underperform because of difficulties with the calculation of data that the government has acknowledged and is working to rectify.

Prices for U.S. Treasuries were narrowly mixed. The dollar was little changed while U.S. stocks were trading marginally lower.

President Donald Trump has pledged to raise annual growth to 4 percent through infrastructure spending, tax cuts and deregulation. On Wednesday, the White House proposed a tax plan that includes cutting the corporate income tax rate to 15 percent from 35 percent, but offered no details.

WAGE GROWTH ACCELERATING

Economists are skeptical that fiscal stimulus, if it materializes, will fire up the economy given weak productivity and labor shortages in some areas. They see growth just above 2 percent this year.

“The cupboard is bare when companies need to hire skilled labor. You can’t build American if you can’t find any American workers to put on your shop floor,” said Christopher Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG Union Bank in New York.

Growth in consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, braked to a 0.3 percent rate, the slowest pace since the fourth quarter of 2009. That followed the fourth quarter’s robust 3.5 percent growth rate.

A mild winter undercut demand for heating and utilities production. Higher inflation, with the personal consumption expenditures price index averaging 2.4 percent – the highest since the second quarter of 2011 – was also a drag.

Spending also took a hit from government delays issuing income tax refunds to combat fraud.

In a separate report on Friday, the Labor Department said private sector wages jumped 0.9 percent in the first quarter, the largest increase in a 10 years, after rising 0.5 percent in the fourth quarter.

With wage growth, business investment and inflation firming, economists believe Federal Reserve officials will look past the weak first-quarter GDP when they meet next week.

Fed Chair Janet Yellen has previously described quarterly GDP as “noisy.” The U.S. central bank lifted its overnight interest rate by a quarter of a percentage point in March and has forecast two more hikes this year. It is not expected to raise interest rates next Wednesday.

“There is enough reason to doubt the growth slowdown for the Fed to stay the course on tightening, especially with a bigger-than-expected pop in employment costs,” said Chris Low, chief economist at FTN Financial in New York. 

Businesses accumulated inventories at a rate of $10.3 billion in the last quarter, down from $49.6 billion in the October-December period. Inventories subtracted 0.93 percentage point from GDP growth.

Government spending on defense declined at a 4.0 percent pace, the biggest fall since the fourth quarter of 2014 and second quarterly drop.

Business spending on equipment accelerated at a 9.1 percent rate in the first quarter thanks to rising oil prices. Spending on mining exploration, wells and shafts surged at a record 449 percent rate. That led to spending on nonresidential structures rebounding at a 22.1 percent pace, the fastest in three years.

Investment in home building increased for a second quarter while rising exports narrowed the trade deficit.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

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