Where the Hurricane Impact May Show Up in U.S. GDP Report

Updated on
  • Investment in structures probably took biggest hit from storms
  • Car-sales rebound likely lifted consumer spending last quarter

Who Pays The Bill When Mother Nature Strikes?

It will probably take a lot more than hurricanes to blow the U.S. economy off its path of steady growth.

That’s the expected takeaway from third-quarter gross domestic product figures due Friday. While Harvey and Irma inflicted extensive damage on parts of Texas and Florida, economists now reckon the storms’ drag was smaller than they’d anticipated. Their median estimate calls for a 2.6 percent annualized rate of growth following a 3.1 percent gain, which would be the best two-quarter performance since early 2015.

The hurricanes depressed investment in the energy sector and to a lesser extent, housing.  While storm-related disruptions also probably hurt consumer outlays on services, other purchases, as well as government spending, may have been boosted by disaster relief and rebuilding that will further aid fourth-quarter growth.

Excluding the temporary distortions, the rest of the economy was humming along heading into the home stretch of 2017, thanks in part to stronger-than-anticipated business spending on equipment. Looking ahead, a steady job market, low inflation and stock- and home-price gains will sustain consumer spending. Companies remain upbeat and overseas demand is improving.

“The fact that the hurricanes were right in the middle of the quarter helped, as there was time to make up for some of the lost ground,” said Tom Simons, senior economist at Jefferies LLC. “The economy is still operating with solid momentum.”

Third-quarter figures will be released Friday by the Commerce Department at 8:30 a.m. in Washington. Economists at Bloomberg Economics expect a 2.3 percent growth pace.

The post-hurricane rebound may extend into 2018. Beyond that, the Federal Reserve and many economists expect growth to slow, moving closer to 2 percent rather than the sustained 3 percent pace that the Trump administration says will happen if its tax plan is enacted.

Read more: Bloomberg Economics on how data bode well for 2H GDP

Some of the fallout from Harvey and Irma -- which struck in late August and early September, respectively -- was already evident in industrial production, which declined last quarter amid disruptions in oil-and-gas well drilling and shutdowns at chemical plants.

The GDP report may show investment in structures, which includes drilling rigs, fell at a 5 percent rate after rising 7 percent in the second quarter, according to Deutsche Bank Securities Inc. economists Brett Ryan and Matthew Luzzetti. On the other hand, higher shipments of non-military capital goods excluding aircraft probably translate to gains in business-equipment spending in GDP.

Housing also took a hit from the tropical storms and flooding across Texas, Florida and Georgia. Builders broke ground on fewer homes in September, with the South posting the slowest pace since 2015, though a surge in sales bodes well for construction in coming months.

The hurricanes’ impact will be harder to gauge elsewhere in the GDP data. Sales of cars and light trucks rebounded in September to the fastest pace since 2005 as Americans replaced storm-damaged vehicles. While that probably boosted durable goods purchases, flooding and power outages may have crimped consumer outlays on services such as utilities.

The Bloomberg survey median projects household consumption, the biggest part of the economy, grew at a 2.1 percent pace following a 3.3 percent gain in the second quarter. The rate has averaged about 2.4 percent in this expansion.

Economists say it’s unclear whether inventories were a drag or a help last quarter, as the replacement rebound in vehicle sales helped to clear dealer lots, though storm-related disruptions in other industries may have spurred stockpiling. Inventory and trade data Thursday showed the merchandise-trade deficit widened in September to a four-month high, while inventories rose at wholesalers and fell at retailers.

GDP projections in the Bloomberg survey range from 1.8 percent to 3.6 percent. Wells Fargo Securities economists said on Wednesday that the hurricanes cut an estimated 0.9 percentage point off growth in the quarter, projecting expansion of 2.1 percent.

While the first estimate of GDP is usually anyone’s guess and more so this time, labor market data are clearly signaling strength. Jobless claims are back near a 44-year low after an initial storm-related spike. Employers’ payrolls, which fell last month, are projected to post a hefty rebound in October. But confirmation on that will only come next week in Labor Department data.

— With assistance by Nancy Moran

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