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By Martha C. White
Wall Street took a nosedive on Friday as weak tech earnings reports eclipsed the latest gross domestic product figure. The S&P 500 and Nasdaq indices were both in correction territory Friday morning, having fallen 10 percent from recent highs, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped by almost 500 points.
While the initial estimate of third quarter GDP released Friday by the Bureau of Economic Analysis was lower than last quarter’s better-than-expected 4.2 percent, economists say the 3.5 percent growth rate still indicates a strong economy.
Beating economists’ consensus of a 3.3 percent increase, the BEA attributed consumer spending, a buildup of inventory, increased government spending at all levels, and nonresidential fixed investment for the growth. Economists pointed to weak residential investment and a wider trade deficit as factors responsible for letting some air out of the economic balloon.
Although disposable income did slip a bit in the third quarter, it still increased by 4.1 percent to $155 billion. “It looks like consumers were happy to spend and suggested they feel good about their situation,” said Sameer Samana, a global investment and technical strategist for the Wells Fargo investment Institute.
The University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment index for October bore this out, coming in at 98.6. “Stock price declines, rising inflation and interest rates, and the negative mid-term election campaigns, have not acted to undermine consumer confidence,” wrote Surveys of Consumers chief economist Richard Curtin in his analysis.
“Wages are moving in the right direction — they’re slowly starting to tick higher,” Samana told NBC News. “The thing that does worry us a little is the savings rate fell… At some point, is that pulling forward future consumption?”
The big question going forward is if President Donald Trump will seek to deflect rather than claim credit if the economy slows. Last quarter, when the initial second quarter GDP hit 4.1 percent (it was later revised upward), Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross gave credit to the White House saying, “President Trump’s economic plan is working… His vision is revitalizing communities across the country and letting American families keep more of their hard-earned dollars.”
With just under two weeks to go before the midterm elections, Dan North, senior economist for North America at Euler Hermes, said the GOP has failed so far to capitalize on the tax cut, deregulatory and defense spending-fueled growth. “Republicans have done a poor job of delivering the message of economic growth,” he said.
Michelle Meyer, head of U.S. Economics at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, had predicted GDP growth of 3.4 percent ahead of the Friday’s figures, but warned that Trump’s tariffs represented a threat going forward. “Trade will be a big drag on growth,” she said in a research note.
The looming prospect of more trade sanctions, especially with China — with whom the White House has refused to negotiate further unless Beijing agrees to big concessions on technology and other sticking points — could also be inflating the current numbers by pushing forward companies’ investments in inventory.
“The combination of strong imports and inventory build could partly reflect businesses stocking up on goods in anticipation of the second round of China tariffs, which went into effect at the end of the quarter,” Meyer wrote.
“You did have capital expenditures in property and equipment start to slow down a bit,” Samana said. “You wonder if people are starting to worry a bit about tariffs and growth generally.”