December Economic Read

The US economy continues its pace of modest expansion. Though self-sustaining growth continues to be the most likely outcome, a few soft spots – mainly related to weak growth overseas – continue to worry. I expect the economy to adapt well to the beginning of a shallow and gradual rate hike cycle.

Our Astor Economic Index® shows growth somewhat above the ten year average, though it is lower than a month ago. The AEI is a proprietary index which evaluates selected employment and output trends to try and gauge the current pace of US economic growth.

Good news first. The broad economy continues to expand as can be seen in the steady pace of jobs growth. It may be a promising sign for the future that construction jobs continue to grow at a slightly faster rate than they have since the Great Recession. The housing sector has been weak in the recovery and improvement would be welcome.

The weakness in the manufacturing sector continues as demonstrated by a range of indicators. The latest survey from the ISM was below the line demarcating manufacturing expansion/contraction, though this level is consistent with a growing economy, not a broad recession. This is also reflected in the index of industrial production. The manufacturing sub-index has been weak all year, though not nearly as weak as the mining sub-index.

Source: Bloomberg, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Institute of Supply Management

Source: Bloomberg, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Institute of Supply Management

I see this weakness mainly as a consequence of the slower pace of growth in the Chinese economy leading to broad emerging economy weakness which, in turn, is directly reducing prices on commodities produced in the US as well as reducing overseas demand for US produced intermediate goods. As part of the financial markets reaction to this adjustment the dollar has rallied about 20% against a broad currency index over the last 18 months. The IMF estimates that the dollar movement alone has reduced US GDP growth (by reducing net exports) by about 1% in the last few years.

Will this manufacturing recession spread to the rest of the economy? I do not believe recessions can be forecasted at significant horizons, so I will not lay odds. My guess, however, is that it would take significant further deterioration in the global environment for this to happen. And whatever odds you place on them, it is also possible that the headwinds the US is facing in the external environment will begin to dissipate or at least stop deteriorating next year, a slightly optimistic vision.

The continued decent growth in the US in the face of some overseas challenges is one of the reasons why the Federal Reserve will begin raising rates shortly. They seem to be anticipating the attenuation or reversal of growth constraining factors and hope that by starting rate hikes sooner they will not need to raise them as much. Additionally, if we take the Fed at their word, they are worried about labor market slack being close to completely used up.

If I were on the FOMC I would vote against a hike as the Fed’s inflation target does not seem to be close to binding any time soon and because I would be hoping to decrease the numbers of involuntary part timers as well as try to move the labor participation rate back higher, though demography limits potential gains.

Be that as it may, the Fed is still likely to initiate a rate hike, followed by a stately pace of follow-up rate hikes. Given that the Fed has not begun to shrink its balance sheet (maintaining a substantial stimulus) and that fed funds may only be around 1% a year from now, few serious observers are anticipating that this will seriously hurt the economy.

Overall, I am still cautiously optimistic on the US economy, though less so than last month and I will be watching developments in the export sector closely.

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The Astor Economic Index® is a proprietary index created by Astor Investment Management LLC. It represents an aggregation of various economic data points: including output and employment indicators. The Astor Economic Index® is designed to track the varying levels of growth within the U.S. economy by analyzing current trends against historical data. The Astor Economic Index® is not an investable product. When investing, there are multiple factors to consider. The Astor Economic Index® should not be used as the sole determining factor for your investment decisions. The Index is based on retroactive data points and may be subject to hindsight bias. There is no guarantee the Index will produce the same results in the future. 312151-336