MacroScope

Economists revise down third quarter U.S. GDP forecasts as business investment missing in action

Richard Leong contributed to this post

U.S.durable goods orders rebounded a solid 9.9 percent in September following the prior month’s plunge. However, a proxy for business investment was essentially stuck in neutral. This was sufficiently worrying to JP Morgan economists to force them to revise down their estimates for third quarter U.S. economic growth down to 1.6 percent from 1.8 percent. Barclays economists also marked down their Q3 GDP forecast by 0.2 percentage point, putting it at 1.8 percent. The Reuters consensus forecast for the number, due out on Friday, is 1.9 percent.

JP Morgan economist Mike Feroli:

Don’t let the headline fool you: the September durables report was a big disappointment. In particular, the weakness in the capital goods figures leaves intact our concerns regarding the capex outlook. In light of today’s report we are revising down our expectations for tomorrow’s 3Q GDP report from 1.8% to 1.6%. We continue to look for 2.0% growth in 4Q, though there is now some downside risk to our business investment projection for next quarter. […]

Core capital goods orders were flat last month and core capital goods shipments were down 0.3%. These figures may not look so bad until you consider two factors; first, both numbers had been weak over the prior few months and some rebound was expected, and second, both numbers tend to be strong in the third month of the quarter. Topping it all off, both numbers were revised down a decent amount in August. All of these factors get reflected in the three-month average annualized change, which shows shipments declining at a 4.9% pace and orders sinking at a 23.5% annual rate.

Feroli cites some scary precedents for the drop in shipments:

Declines of these magnitudes are seldom scene outside of recession; this isn’t meant to raise recession alarms, but instead to highlight that we have the consumer to thank for keeping the economy above water.

Blame small government for U.S. GDP downer

Weak U.S. economic growth in the first quarter was driven in part by a pullback in business investment — but a sharp decline in government spending also played a role. Gross domestic product grew 2.2 percent, well short of the Reuters consensus forecast of 2.5 percent. Business spending fell 2.1 percent while government expenditures saw a 3 percent drop linked to lower defense spending. Consumer spending proved a bright spot in the report, climbing 2.9 percent. Still, there is concern that this too could fade because an unusually warm winter may have brought some spending forward.

Jay Feldman at Credit Suisse breaks down the numbers:

The big downside surprise from our vantage point was in federal government spending, which contracted 5.6% in the quarter (we expected an increase given the firmer readings in monthly Treasury data). Most of the shortfall was concentrated in defense (-8.1%). Combined with the ongoing contraction in state and local government output (-1.2%), the government sector overall shaved 0.6 percentage point from top line GDP.

Yet this pales in comparison to what might happen if Congress fails to break a budget logjam by the end of this year. If left unaddressed, the resulting spending cuts and expiring tax breaks — the dreaded fiscal cliff — could easily tip the world’s largest economy back into recession.