The world’s largest economy will strengthen through 2012 as employment gains give Americans the means to withstand rising fuel costs, according to economists surveyed by Bloomberg News.
Gross domestic product will climb at a 2.5 percent annual rate in the final three months of the year, up from 2 percent this quarter, according to the median forecast of 71 economists surveyed from March 9 to March 13. For all of 2012, the U.S. may expand 2.2 percent, accelerating from 1.7 percent last year.
More jobs, increasing share prices, improving confidence and stability in housing will bolster the expansion. At the same time, unemployment will be slow to retreat, averaging 7.3 percent in 2014, showing why Federal Reserve policy makers yesterday said interest rates will remain low for at least the next two years.
“Some of the conditions for faster growth are falling into place,” said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Massachusetts. By the end of the year, “we’ll still be a long way from what would make the Fed more comfortable. They will still be missing their full employment objective.” IHS Global Insight was the second most-accurate forecaster of consumer spending over the two years through February, according to Bloomberg calculations.
Household purchases, which account for about 70 percent of the economy, will advance at a 2.4 percent pace in the final three months of the year, up from 1.9 percent this quarter, the survey showed.
Retail sales indicate the year was off to a good start. The 1.1 percent advance in February, the biggest in five months, followed a 0.6 percent increase in January that was larger than previously estimated, according to Commerce Department data yesterday. Eleven of 13 categories showed gains last month, including auto dealers and clothing stores. The results also reflected higher gasoline costs, which reached $3.81 on March 13, the highest since May.
Cars last month sold at the fastest pace in four years, led by Chrysler Group LLC and a surprise gain from General Motors Co. (GM) Light-vehicle sales accelerated 6.4 percent from January to a 15 million annual rate, the strongest since February 2008, according to Ward’s Automotive Group.
Hiring gains are driving the spending. Employers boosted payrolls by 227,000 in February after a revised 284,000 gain in January, capping the best six-month streak of job growth since 2006. The unemployment rate held at a three-year low of 8.3 percent following five consecutive declines. Worker pay jumped in the last six months of 2011 by the most in almost five years.
“Household income growth will be a bit stronger as the labor market improves, so the consumption numbers will look better,” said Dean Maki, chief U.S. economist at Barclays Capital Inc. in New York and a former Fed researcher who specialized in consumer spending. “It’ll be a solid year, not a spectacular one.”
Delhaize Group SA, the owner of the U.S. Food Lion supermarkets, this month said the improvement in the labor market is encouraging.
“There are some good forward-looking economic indicators here in the U.S. that would help give all of us some optimism,” Ronald Hodge, chief executive officer of Delhaize’s U.S. business, said on a March 8 conference call with analysts. “Unemployment has started to decrease in every one of our major markets and that is a very, very key sign in our business.”
Gains in hiring and wages are also lifting Americans’ moods. The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index, which has advanced in all except two weeks so far this year, rose to an almost four-year high in the period ended March 4.
Investors are also growing more upbeat. The Dow Jones Industrial Average yesterday jumped to the highest level since 2007, and the Nasdaq Composite Index climbed to the highest level since 2000. Yesterday’s 1.8 percent gain in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index extended the gauge’s advance this year to 11 percent, the best start since 1991.
Households may be more inclined to spend in the second half as gains in wealth eventually drive purchases, Maki said.
“The recent gains in the stock market will start to show through more significantly in consumer spending,” he said. “We’re seeing demand gradually recover.”
The jobless rate will decline to 8.1 percent by year-end, according to the median forecast of economists surveyed. It will average 7.8 percent next year and 7.3 percent in 2014, the survey showed.
The Fed’s projection of the jobless rate over the long run, the level that policy makers believe will keep inflation steady, is 5 percent to 6 percent.
“The unemployment rate has declined notably in recent months but remains elevated,” the central bank said in a statement after policy makers met yesterday in Washington. Economic conditions warrant keeping interest rates “exceptionally low” at least through late 2014 “to support a stronger economic recovery,” they said.
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