The Commerce Department
reported first quarter US GDP was 0.7%, below the 1%
that economists were expecting.
A large reason for the lackluster print was a big drop off
in the amount Americans spent.
Real personal consumption grew by just 0.3% in the first quarter,
down from 3.5% in fourth quarter of 2016. It lowest
since Q4 2009, just two quarters removed from the recession.
According to Ward McCarthy, chief financial economist at
Jefferies, this dragged down growth.
“Q1 PCE rose a modest 0.3% and contributed a scant 0.23
percentage points to growth,” McCarthy said in a note following
the release. “The US is still very much a consumer-driven
economy, and the consequences of a quarter when consumer spending
slows are clearly reflected in headline GDP growth. Had PCE made
the average contribution to growth, Q1 headline GDP growth would
have been 2%.”
The significant spending drop came from a drag in
two key areas, according to TD Bank’s Brittany
“Reduced spending on motor vehicles led to a
contraction in durable goods expenditures (-2.5%) while
seasonably warm temperatures hit spending on utilities,
contributed to a weak spending on services (0.4%),” said Baumann
in a note.
Oddly enough, it doesn’t appear to be because Americans are
getting paid less. The Employment Cost Index, a measure of wages
and benefits given to American labor, hit 0.8% in the first
quarter, its highest reading for since Q1 2008.
Additionally, the ECI’s increase was driven on both ends with
wage costs (which make up 70% of the index) increasing 0.8% and
benefit costs up 0.7% (the other 30% of the index). The wages
index wasn’t quite at a post-recession high, but close.
Additionally, real disposable income grew 1% for the quarter,
indicating Americans had more money in their pocket to spend.
There is a good argument that this was mostly driven by seasonal
factors. The first quarter has typically seen weak growth over
the last few years, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear and
one-time factors like lower energy spending due to the warm
weather may have weighed on spending.
It is also important to note that this is the first release of
GDP and is subject to two more revisions over the coming months,
so additional data gathering may show a strong trend.
As Neil Dutta, head of US economic research at Renaissance Macro
noted, the underlying fundamentals for consumption looked
stronger than the GDP gain, so the weakness may be temporary.
“Real [disposable personal income] rose 1.0% SAAR over
the quarter, which is not great but does suggests that
consumption likely undershot fundamentals.
Expect a rebound in coming quarters,” Dutta said.
As for now, however, it looks like Americans are spending like
its the financials crisis.