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.
It was fun to watch. Nouriel Roubini, NYU economist and crisis personality, was one of just five carefully selected individuals at a large gathering in the International Monetary Fund HQ1 building’s towering atrium who actually got to ask questions of the policymakers on stage.
Austerity in the euro zone seems to be working — at least as far as the headline, dry, soulless numbers of budget balancing are concerned. Bailed out Greece and Ireland have reported substantial improvements in last year’s profligacy performance. Spain, while going in the wrong direction, at least has the satisfaction of being told it is not telling fibs.
Weekly data on applications for unemployment benefits have gained renewed importance since a weak March payrolls number left economists wondering whether a tentative labor market recovery was about to cave again. The last two weeks’ readings were just soft enough to leave investors thinking the country’s unemployment crisis may not be healing very quickly.
The Law of Diminishing Returns states that a continuing push towards a given goal tends to decline in effectiveness after a certain amount of effort has been expended. If this weren’t the case, Usain Bolt would be able to run the mile in less than 2-1/2 minutes.
Central banks across the industrialized world responded aggressively to the global financial crisis that began in mid-2007 and in many ways remains with us today. Now, faced with sluggish recoveries, policymakers are reticent to embark on further unconventional monetary easing, fearing both internal criticism and political blowback. They are being forced to rely more on verbal guidance than actual stimulus to prevent markets from pricing in higher rates.
Avast ye swabs! Maybe the disconnect between improving labor markets and sluggish economic growth that has Federal Reserve policymakers scratching their heads makes sense if viewed through a pirate’s spyglass – with a lot of latitude, according to a top Fed official.
Top billing of the day probably goes to Germany’s Merkel and Italy’s Monti meeting in Rome, though it is quite late in the day. The Italian premier remains the austerity poster boy, in contrast to Spain’s Rajoy who was partially let off the hook by Brussels last night for abandoning his deficit target, though he was told to split the difference between the first target and his new, looser goal.
There’s a sense of relief among European policymakers that the worst of the euro zone’s crisis appears to have passed. Olli Rehn, the EU’s top economic officials, talked this week of a “turning of the tide in the coming months”. Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, speaks of “sizeable progress” and “a reassuring picture”.