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Tool | September 2015

Kiplinger's Economic Outlooks

GDP
2.7% in second-half '15; 2.5% for the year
Unemployment
Staying at 5.1% through end of '15
Interest rates
By end '15, 10-year T-notes at 2.3%; mortgages, 4.1%
Inflation
1.4% for '15, up from 0.8% in '14
Business spending
Increasing by 4% in '15, vs. 5% in '14
Energy
Crude oil trading from $40 to $45/bbl. by Dec.
Housing
Single-family starts rising 12% in second half of '15
Retail sales
Up 4.5% this year, excluding gasoline sales
Trade deficit
Widening by 5% in '15
Practical Economics columns
Make sense of the latest data and trends.

GDP

Last updated: August 31, 2015

By David Payne

Moderate economic growth in the U.S. will continue in the second half of 2015, but won’t match the strong 3.7% boost seen in the second quarter.

We expect GDP to grow about 2.7% over the last six months of the year, resulting in an overall pickup of 2.5% for the full year, slightly ahead of 2014’s pace. The 3.7% spurt was simply a rebound from the bad weather of the first quarter. Overall growth for the first half was 2.2%.

Strong consumer spending is playing a big role in fueling the economic resurgence, helped by strong gains in disposable income and lower gasoline prices. Also helping: A ramp-up of construction activity, including home building. The housing market is having a good year, propelled by a stronger job market and rising wages plus pent-up demand and an increase in household formations.

Third-quarter growth should slow from the strong second quarter as inventories and state and local government construction slow from an unsustainable pace. Growth is likely to pick up again in the fourth quarter.

The biggest drag on U.S. growth going forward? International trade. Exports are discouraged and imports encouraged by the strong U.S. dollar, and by the strength of the U.S. economy relative to other nation’s economies. The slowdown in China will be a drag on U.S. exports, both to China itself and to its suppliers, such as South Korea and Japan. However, international trade is not likely to shave the U.S. growth rate by more than a few tenths of a percent.

Dept. of Commerce: GDP Data

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Employment

Last updated: September 4, 2015

By David Payne

A mixed employment report for August plus financial market turmoil will likely delay the Federal Reserve’s first rate hike, but only for a month or two. The unemployment rate in August dropped to 5.1%, a level that the Federal Reserve defines as consistent with full employment. But, the report also showed a dip in job growth to 173,000 after increases of 245,000 in both June and July. Though some see the report as a whole as proof enough of the “further improvement in the labor market” that the Fed is looking for ahead of a rate hike, we think the Fed is likely to wait for a more unambiguous report before raising the short-term interest rate one quarter-point. And though stock market ups and downs aren’t supposed to factor into Fed decisions, a rate hike this month in light of recent market turmoil could make the Fed seem tone-deaf.

One thing’s for sure: Bank on only one rate hike this year. Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen has basically said that increases on her watch are not going to come at every Fed meeting, as they did during Chairman Alan Greenspan’s tenure between 2004 and 2006. Yellen wants to be able to evaluate the impact of each hike before pulling the trigger on the next one.

Much of the reason for a lower employment gain than expected in August is attributable to the mining and manufacturing sectors, which laid off more workers than they hired last month. The mining industry is feeling pain from lower energy and commodity prices, while manufacturers of a variety of products are hurt by the slowing economies of China and other emerging markets, which are dampening demand for U.S. exports.

The U.S. labor market overall is definitely tightening. The large numbers of folks who have left the labor force by retiring or giving up looking for work are not coming back anytime soon. The number who enter and find jobs each month has flattened this year. And the number who enter the labor force and are counted as unemployed has been declining since 2013. If the good job market of the past two years has not been enough to entice them back, then they are not likely to return. There are, however, still a large number of people working part-time who would like to work full-time.

Wage pressure is building, albeit slowly. Average hourly earnings grew 2.2% over the past 12 months, and wage growth is likely to continue to inch up until the labor market tightens some more. Look for a more noticeable pickup in wages in 2016.

Finally, it should be said that the sleepy summer month of August can be a fluky month for government statistics, so next month’s employment report will be more helpful in determining which way the winds are blowing. Note, too, that employment numbers for the past four Augusts were revised upward after the initial reports.

Dept. of Labor: Employment Data

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Interest Rates

Last updated: September 4, 2015

By David Payne

Long-term interest rates should end the year at about 2.3%, just a bit above where they are now. They will get a slight bump up when the Federal Reserve raises short-term rates in the next month or two — the first increase since the recession. And 30-year fixed rate mortgages will wind up at 4.1% at the end of this year, versus 3.9% now.

Long-term rates will stay relatively low because U.S. Treasuries will continue to be attractive, given that:

● China’s growth is likely to continue slowing, keeping its central bank committed to easier monetary policy.

● The Fed won’t want to further boost the value of the dollar by making it even more attractive with higher rates.

● Uncertainties about Greece staying in the eurozone will persist well into 2016. Every hiccup will push more investors toward the safety of bonds from major economies.

● Consumer prices in the U.S. are unlikely to rev up much anytime soon.

● The European Central Bank will stay on its expansionary path despite improving growth in Europe. The ECB intends to keep buying 60 billion euros’ worth of bonds a month until September 2016, a substantial share of the Eurobond market.

We expect the Federal Reserve to bump up short-term interest rates by a quarter-point at either their October 28 meeting or their December 16 meeting. But we don’t see a second hike until several months later. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has indicated that increases are not going to happen at every meeting, as they did under former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan between 2004 and 2006. She wants to be able to assess the effect of each hike before OK’ing the next one.

Federal Open Market Committee

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Inflation

Last updated: August 20, 2015

By David Payne

With rental rates on the upswing and gasoline price declines smaller than they were a year ago, overall consumer prices will rise 1.4% this year, compared with the exceptionally low 0.8% increase in 2014.

Even with the uptick, though, consider inflation well behaved, and it will remain so well into next year, courtesy of slow-to-rise wages, despite falling unemployment, and lower commodity prices.

The core inflation rate, which excludes food and energy prices, will be up about 2.2% this year versus a 1.6% hike last year. The increase will be roughly in line with an expected pickup in wages to 2.2% this year, from 2% last year.

The core rate is typically seen as a more accurate gauge of underlying inflation because food and energy costs are typically volatile. Though total price inflation will stay below 2% until 2016, the Federal Reserve is likely to use the jump in core inflation to justify an interest rate hike in September.

Prices for services and prescription drugs are rising the fastest this year: Physician and dentist charges—up 2.5%; hospital costs, 3.5%; and prescription drug costs, 4%-5%. Rents will continue to climb at a 3%-3.5% clip well into 2016, when more folks will opt to purchase homes, reducing demand for rental units. Prices of college tuition and textbooks are likely to go up about 4% this year.

Dept. of Labor: Inflation Data

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Business Spending

Last updated: August 28, 2015

By Glenn Somerville

Despite deep spending cuts in the energy sector, business spending overall is picking up and will likely grow by 4% this year.

The strengthening economy figures to boost manufacturing activity in coming months. July orders for core capital goods, a category that includes nondefense items and excludes aircraft and is therefore seen as a proxy for investment plans, notched a solid 2.2% increase on top of a 1.4% June pickup. That supports other recent data, including healthy new-car sales, increased housing activity and steady employment gains that give companies more confidence to expand and spend on labor-saving technology.

Businesses shelled out the most in July for new machinery, transportation, electrical equipment and communications gear, providing a promising start to the final six months of 2015, after a soft first half when investment was virtually unchanged from a year earlier. Shipments of finished goods are rising at a mediocre rate, however, an indication that factories are still at far less than full capacity — hence the modest 4% increase in spending for all of 2015. That’s a far cry from the double-digit annual increases in years prior to the Great Recession. The strong U.S. dollar, relative to many other key currencies, is continuing to produce a drag on foreign trade, resulting in a pileup of inventories and a drag on production. That will remain the case until sales growth picks up enough to persuade corporations to invest more strongly for expansion — possibly by the fourth quarter, setting up brighter business investment prospects for 2016.

Census Bureau: Durable Goods Report
Census Bureau: Business Inventories
Census Bureau: Construction Activity

Energy

Last updated: August 31, 2015

By Jim Patterson

A quirk in government energy data gives crude oil a big lift. After soaring at the end of last week, crude got another upward jolt as this week got underway when the Department of Energy lowered its estimate of how much oil the U.S. has pumped so far in 2015. That signaled to traders that the swoon in oil prices has caused a bigger drop-off in production than initial data showed. That surprise announcement helped lift West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the U.S. benchmark for crude, to about $48 per barrel, well off WTI’s recent low of about $40 per barrel.

But we believe this is a short-term rally in oil prices. Even if drillers produced less oil than the market initially assumed, that doesn’t change the fact that oil supply continues to outpace demand. Measuring the precise amount of oil being produced is tricky, but there’s no doubt about the very large stockpiles of crude and refined products building up in storage tanks. Meanwhile, gasoline demand is likely to throttle back after Labor Day as the summer travel season comes to a close, and signs of a weakening Chinese economy point to less oil demand from the world’s second-largest oil user. On the production front, drillers are now running more rigs, suggesting that the drop in output could be temporary.

Markets are bound to remain volatile in the near term, as traders try to gauge everything from the health of the global economy to new calls by certain OPEC members to cut output. In the longer term, we see crude prices remaining fairly weak, with WTI likely to be trading between $40 and $45 per barrel by December.

Prices at the pump should slip a bit more, after dropping significantly last week. The national average price of regular unleaded is down 12 cents per gallon from a week ago, at $2.47. Given the recent rally in oil prices, gasoline might rise some in the near term, but we expect it to trend down this fall as refiners switch to cheaper winter blends of gasoline and motorists drive less. Diesel prices will slide less than gasoline, once cooler weather arrives in the Northeast and demand for heating oil (diesel’s chemical cousin) perks up. At $2.57 per gallon, the national average price of diesel could slip to $2.50 or a bit lower before stabilizing.

Natural gas prices remain largely unchanged. The benchmark price of $2.67 per million British thermal units (MMBtu) has been holding fairly steady at the low end of our expected trading range of $2.60 to $2.90. We look for gas prices to gradually rise toward $3 per MMBtu by late fall, as cool weather boosts demand and drillers pare back production because of recent low gas prices.

Dept. of Energy: Price Statistics

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Housing

Last updated: August 28, 2015

By Rodrigo Sermeño

Home construction continues to show signs of improvement. Housing starts are up nearly 12% from the end of last year, with most of the gain happening in the past few months. The improvement is largely concentrated in multifamily buildings — not surprising, given the increased demand for rentals. Despite picking up in recent months, single-family construction remains significantly below its pace before the housing bubble burst. Overall, the last couple of months have shown steady improvement in residential construction. As a result, home builders are feeling confident. In August, the National Association of Home Builders’ confidence survey reached its highest level since November 2005.

We expect the improvement to continue. The number of building permits has risen this year, soaring to a seasonally adjusted 1.33 million starts in June before dropping a bit in July. Presumably, construction activity will get stronger over coming months as permits lead to starts.

Note that builders are facing higher prices for skilled labor and lots, due to the tightening job market and the shortage of lots ready for construction. By contrast, material costs have remained subdued as global appetite for them has slowed. Builders report that credit for acquisition, development and construction has eased a bit in recent months.

Robust demand will likely result in the best year for home sales since 2008. July new-home sales rose 5.4% from the previous month and 26% from a year ago. New home inventories increased in July to 218,000, the highest level in more than five years. That suggests that builders expect sales to pick up further. Existing-home sales have remained at the highest level since February 2007 for the past three months.

Not all the housing news is good, though. The share of first-time home buyers has fallen for two consecutive months and hit its lowest level since January last month. Tight credit, steep rents and high student debt levels are among the factors keeping some potential buyers on the sidelines. Another blemish among housing indicators: the low inventory of existing homes for sale. The shortage has budged in recent months, but the level remains below what is considered normal in a healthy housing market. Total housing inventory shrank a little in July; it decreased 4.7% from a year ago. At the current sales pace, the unsold inventory in July represents a 4.8-month supply. Typically, a six-month supply is viewed as necessary to maintain a balance between supply and demand.

Dept. of Commerce: New-Home Sales
National Assn. of Realtors: Existing-Home Sales
Dept. of Commerce: Housing Starts

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Retail

Last updated: August 14, 2015

By Lisa Elaine Babb and David Payne

Look for retail sales to gain steam in the second half of the year, a boon for retailers and the broader economy. After a flat first half, consumer spending is ticking up because of better job opportunities and moderate wage gains, and will maintain a steady pace well into the holiday shopping season. Retail sales growth, excluding gasoline, will be around 4.5% for the year, down slightly from 4.7% in 2014.

Motor vehicle, restaurant and building materials sales will continue to perform better than expected for the rest of 2015. However, because many shoppers will opt to shell out for big-ticket items such as autos, other nongasoline sales will see only moderate growth, at about a 3% rate. Low gasoline prices will cause gasoline sales in dollar terms to depress the headline retail sales number for 2015 to around only 2.5% growth.

July sales bounced back with healthy growth after a June lull. Sidewalk sales provided a much-needed boost for many retailers in July, luring savvy shoppers with discounts and promotions. This was especially true for shoe retailers. They cashed in on families looking for back-to-school deals.

Barbecues and outdoor activities spelled strong sales for liquor, deli meats and sporting goods.

Dept. of Commerce: Retail Data

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Trade

Last updated: September 4, 2015

By Glenn Somerville

The combination of a strong U.S. dollar and slower growth or recession in key foreign markets will deliver a one-two punch to trade prospects this year and into 2016. Over the past year, the dollar has appreciated close to 20% against a basket of key currencies, including the euro, the Japanese yen and the Canadian dollar, making U.S.-produced goods more expensive in foreign markets. Every indication is that the greenback will stay strong well into next year, especially with the Federal Reserve likely to raise interest rates before year-end. That move will make dollar-based investments more attractive. At the same time, top two-way trade partner Canada and Latin America’s biggest economy, Brazil, are in recession, while China is slowing and is trying to pump up its own exports through currency devaluation.

We expect the U.S. shortfall on trade with the rest of the world this year to increase by 5% to about $535 billion. Upward pressure on the trade deficit will carry into 2016, in part because U.S. expansion is gradually picking up pace while the rest of the world, including Europe, is struggling to boost growth.

Trade has been exceptionally volatile this year. Labor disputes at West Coast ports at the start of the year slowed shipments of U.S. exports and brought delays in processing imports. The monthly trade deficit shot to $52.2 billion in March, a three-year high, but has since settled back moderately. During July, the shortfall between imports and exports fell 7.4% from June’s total to $41.9 billion. Somewhat surprisingly, there was broad-based strength in July exports, which rose 0.4%. Highlights included a $303-million gain in industrial supplies and materials, $179 million more in capital goods and a $596-million jump in exports of cars and auto parts. Given lackluster growth overseas, however, and the impact of the dollar’s appreciation, there’s not much reason to expect a marked acceleration in exports. Imports fell by 1.1% during July, largely because of a $1.5-billion drop in pharmaceutical products and a $1.3-billion decline in cell phone imports. Both categories of products still are up significantly on a year-over-year basis, however, so the July drops may turn out to be one-off events.

Another anomaly in July: Further pickup in the volume of oil imports and in the size of the monthly deficit on oil trade. Even so, the $8.1-billion oil deficit was far below its $14.7-billion total a year earlier, and oil remains a bright spot in the overall trade picture. Prices have been bouncing around but we expect the value of petroleum imports will likely decline in coming months and that the longer-term trend for America’s energy bill remains decidedly downward. By the end of the decade, the United States will be not only fully energy-independent but also a net exporter to the rest of the world.

Dept. of Commerce: Trade Data

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