Inventories Hurt 3Q GDP, Domestic Demand Strong

General Motors
Tony Gutierrez/APA worker inspects an SUV at the General Motors plant in Arington, Texas.
By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON -- U.S. economic growth braked sharply in the third quarter as businesses cut back on restocking warehouses to work off an inventory glut, but solid domestic demand could encourage the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates in December.

Gross domestic product increased at a 1.5 percent annual rate after expanding at a 3.9 percent clip in the second quarter, the Commerce Department said Thursday.

The inventory drag, however, is likely to be temporary and economists expect growth to pick up in the fourth quarter given strong domestic fundamentals.

%VIRTUAL-pullquote-"The guts of the report were healthy, they still show strong underlying momentum in the economy and that puts a December rate hike firmly on the table.%"The guts of the report were healthy, they still show strong underlying momentum in the economy and that puts a December rate hike firmly on the table," said Thomas Costerg, a U.S. economist at Standard Chartered Bank in New York.

The Fed on Wednesday described the economy as growing at a "moderate" pace and hinted at a December rate increase by making a direct reference to its next policy meeting. The U.S. central bank has kept benchmark overnight interest rates near zero since December 2008.

Stocks on Wall Street and prices for U.S. Treasury debt fell on the data. The dollar weakened against a basket of currencies.

The economy has struggled to sustain a faster pace of growth since the end of the 2007-09 recession, with average yearly growth failing to break above 2.5 percent. This year, it has faced headwinds from a strong dollar and deep spending cuts by energy firms following a collapse in oil prices.

Businesses accumulated $56.8 billion worth of inventory in the third quarter, the smallest since the first quarter of 2014 and down sharply from $113.5 billion in the April-June period. There were declines in manufacturing, wholesale and retail inventories.

The small inventory build sliced off 1.44 percentage points from third-quarter GDP growth, the largest since the fourth quarter of 2012.

"That inventory drawdown represents a bit of a healthy purge that should set the economy up for stronger growth in the coming quarters," said Jim Baird, chief investment officer for Plante Moran Financial Advisors in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Consumer Save the Day

The blow from inventories was, however, blunted by bullish consumers, who are getting a tailwind from cheaper gasoline and firming housing and labor markets.

Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, grew at a 3.2 percent rate after expanding at a 3.6 percent pace in the second quarter. A measure of private domestic demand, which excludes trade, inventories and government spending, rose at a sturdy 3.2 percent pace.

Spending is likely to remain supported by a fairly healthy labor market and low inflation, which is boosting household purchasing power. Income at the disposal of households increased 3.5 percent in the third quarter after rising 1.2 percent in the prior quarter.

"The consumer remains the main engine of economic growth. We expect this dynamic to remain in place," said Jesse Hurwitz, an economist at Barclays in New York.

A separate report from the Labor Department showed new applications for unemployment benefits last week hovering near levels last seen in late 1973.

With the dollar strengthening, export growth decelerated in the third quarter. The drag was, however, offset by a slowdown in imports, especially automobiles, leaving trade's impact on growth neutral.

Ongoing spending cuts in the energy sector also undermined growth. A plunge in oil prices has prompted oil field companies like Schlumberger (SLM) and Halliburton (HAL) to slash investment.

Schlumberger said this month it didn't expect a recovery in demand before 2017 and anticipated that exploration and production spending would fall again in 2016.

Spending on mining exploration, wells and shafts tumbled at a 46.9 percent rate after dropping at a 68 percent pace in the second quarter. Investment in nonresidential structures contracted at a 4 percent pace, also weighed down by weak spending on commercial and healthcare structures.

Despite strong domestic demand, dollar strength and cheaper gasoline dampened inflation.

The personal consumption expenditures price index rose at a 1.2 percent rate after rising 2.2 percent in the second quarter. Excluding food and energy, prices increased at a 1.3 percent pace, slowing from a 1.9 percent rate in the second quarter.

10 PHOTOS
9 Numbers That'll Tell You How the Economy's Really Doing
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Inventories Hurt 3Q GDP, Domestic Demand Strong
The gross domestic product measures the level of economic activity within a country. To figure the number, the Bureau of Economic Analysis combines the total consumption of goods and services by private individuals and businesses; the total investment in capital for producing goods and services; the total amount spent and consumed by federal, state, and local government entities; and total net exports. It's important, because it serves as the primary gauge of whether the economy is growing or not. Most economists define a recession as two or more consecutive quarters of shrinking GDP.
The CPI measures current price levels for the goods and services that Americans buy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics collects price data on a basket of different items, ranging from necessities like food, clothing and housing to more discretionary expenses like eating out and entertainment. The resulting figure is then compared to those of previous months to determine the inflation rate, which is used in a variety of ways, including cost-of-living increases for Social Security and other government benefits.
The unemployment rate measures the percentage of workers within the total labor force who don't have a job, but who have looked for work in the past four weeks, and who are available to work. Those temporarily laid off from their jobs are also included as unemployed. Yet as critical as the figure is as a measure of how many people are out of work and therefore suffering financial hardship from a lack of a paycheck, one key item to note about the unemployment rate is that the number does not reflect workers who have stopped looking for work entirely. It's therefore important to look beyond the headline numbers to see whether the overall workforce is growing or shrinking.
The trade deficit measures the difference between the value of a nation's imported and exported goods. When exports exceed imports, a country runs a trade surplus. But in the U.S., imports have exceeded exports consistently for decades. The figure is important as a measure of U.S. competitiveness in the global market, as well as the nation's dependence on foreign countries.
Each month, the Bureau of Economic Analysis measures changes in the total amount of income that the U.S. population earns, as well as the total amount they spend on goods and services. But there's a reason we've combined them on one slide: In addition to being useful statistics separately for gauging Americans' earning power and spending activity, looking at those numbers in combination gives you a sense of how much people are saving for their future.
Consumers play a vital role in powering the overall economy, and so measures of how confident they are about the economy's prospects are important in predicting its future health. The Conference Board does a survey asking consumers to give their assessment of both current and future economic conditions, with questions about business and employment conditions as well as expected future family income.
The health of the housing market is closely tied to the overall direction of the broader economy. The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index, named for economists Karl Case and Robert Shiller, provides a way to measure home prices, allowing comparisons not just across time but also among different markets in cities and regions of the nation. The number is important not just to home builders and home buyers, but to the millions of people with jobs related to housing and construction.
Most economic data provides a backward-looking view of what has already happened to the economy. But the Conference Board's Leading Economic Index attempts to gauge the future. To do so, the index looks at data on employment, manufacturing, home construction, consumer sentiment, and the stock and bond markets to put together a complete picture of expected economic conditions ahead.
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