Tale of Two Economies as Americans Thrive, Companies Dive

Consumer Comfort In U.S. Rose Last Week By Most In Three Months

Shoppers are seen taking photos of clothing on mannequins along Fifth Avenue in New York.

Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg
  • Expansion's fate depends on tug of war between the two
  • `It is premature to panic,' Moody's economist Sweet says

Call it a tale of two U.S. economies.

Consumer spending grew last year by the most since 2005, in spite of a slight slackening in the fourth quarter. Nonresidential business investment, meanwhile, rose at its slowest pace since 2010 as oil and gas companies sharply curtailed spending.

The key theme for the economy "is the stark contrast between the fortunes of the household and business sectors," and how that plays out going forward, said Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Amherst Pierpont Securities LLC in New York.

Will the strength in consumer outlays encourage companies to step up spending and keep on hiring? Or will businesses, battered by slow global growth and a rising dollar, turn more risk averse and start to prune payrolls, undermining household spending in the process?

For now, most economists are betting that the American consumer will come out on top and the economy will avoid a recession. Some though are trimming their 2016 growth forecasts as slumping stock and corporate-bond markets make companies even less willing to expand.

“We still have a fairly solid picture in terms of domestic demand, which is mostly consumer spending, housing, and fixed investment that’s not related to energy, which is doing OK," said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS Inc. in Lexington, Massachusetts. "Those are the sources of strength in the U.S. and that’s close to 90 percent of the U.S. economy.”

Kaplan Confident

Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas President Robert Kaplan also said an economic slump over the next year was “unlikely.” The strength of the consumer and the deleveraging of household balance sheets gave him “confidence” that the economy won’t slow enough to slip into a recession, he said Friday in an interview at Bloomberg headquarters in New York.

Gross domestic product climbed 2.4 percent last year, matching the performance of 2014. The complexion of growth though changed, with consumer spending advancing 3.1 percent, while business outlays on structures such as factories, oil rigs and shopping centers dropped 1.5 percent.

That same dichotomy was evident in the fourth quarter, as personal consumption expenditures rose while business investment in equipment and structures dropped for the first time since the third quarter of 2012. GDP increased 0.7 percent after a 2 percent advance in the third quarter.

Jobs, Gasoline

Households are still benefiting from solid labor market improvement as well as a decline in gasoline prices and higher home values. Those tailwinds have helped buttress spending in the face of a January slump in stock prices.

Consumer confidence eased in January, with the University of Michigan’s final sentiment index dropping to 92 from 92.6 in December. Falling equity values and weakness in overseas economies were “spontaneously” mentioned by one of three households with incomes in the top third of the earnings ladder, the most since 1997-1998 financial crisis in Asia, a report showed Friday. Alternate measures, including one from the Conference Board and the Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index, previously showed households remain upbeat.

Foreign Markets

American companies, meanwhile, continue to face challenges posed by the strengthening dollar, which both makes their goods more expensive to sell to foreign customers while imported products become cheaper for U.S. consumers. That’s been exacerbated by concerns that global growth is slowing, led by emerging-market economies such as China.

A plunge in oil markets has caused energy companies to slash investment. For all of last year, outlays for structures used in mining and to extract oil and gas plunged 35 percent, the most since 1986.

The next key reading in the tug of war between corporate caution and consumer confidence comes on Feb. 5 with the release of the monthly jobs figures. Payrolls are projected to have risen by 190,000 this month after an outsized 292,000 increase in December.

"Job growth is going to slow. The 290,000 and plus that we got in December is not sustainable, particularly given the issues that businesses are facing," said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics Inc. in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Still, talk that the U.S. is headed into recession seems misguided, he said. "The U.S. economy ended 2015 with a thud, but it is premature to panic."

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