Popular Economics Weekly

Both the University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment survey and Conference Board’s Index of Leading Indicators rose in May, signaling that employment and growth may be stronger than forecast by most economists.

How can that be with 7.5 percent of the workforce looking for work and some 18 million that have either part time, or no work at all? The real answer is the U.S. economy is almost too complex to accurately measure, and economists have their biases when predicting growth. In fact, few understand what is called macroeconomics, which helps to predict how government polices affect growth.

For instance, Haver Analytics surveys monthly a group of leading economists, and found that the latest Blue Chip survey foresaw U.S. economic growth of 1.6 percent in Q1’13 following an anemic 1.4 percent rise during Q4′12, when Q1 GDP growth was actually 2.5 percent.

“There is, however, divergence as to the degree of further improvement,” wrote Haver Analytics in a major understatement. “By the end of 2013, the consensus foresees GDP growing at 2.7 percent rate with the top 10 forecasts at 3.6 percent and the bottom 10 at 1.8 percent. The same divergence holds true for next year’s expected growth. The consensus of a 3.0 percent advance in real GDP for Q4 2014 is derived from 3.8 percent at the top end and 2.2 percent at the bottom.”

The Blue Chip Indicators also forecast a 7.5 percent unemployment rate by the end of 2013, when it has already dropped to that level in May. The Congressional Budget Office also forecasts 2 percent growth this year, rising to 3.5 percent in 2014.

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Graph: Calculated Risk

Consumer spirits are improving dramatically this month in what very well may be a reflection of improvement in the jobs market. The consumer sentiment index jumped to 83.7 for the mid-month reading vs 76.4 for the final April reading and vs April’s mid-month reading of 72.3. The Econoday consensus was looking for 78.0 with the high-end estimate at 82.5. The latest reading is near the recovery high set in November.

Boosted by strength in housing permits, the Conference Board’s index of leading economic indicators (LEI) surged 0.6 percent in April, double the rate of growth expected by the Econoday consensus and at the high-end of the Econoday consensus. The gain points to rising economic momentum six months out.

Also showing strength are financial measures, including credit activity, as well as jobless claims and the stock market. On the negative side are manufacturing measures, which reflect this sector’s ongoing bumpy ride, as well as consumer expectations. This latter factor, however, is very likely to turn positive in May judging by this morning’s big jump in the consumer sentiment report.

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Graph: Haver Analytics

The bottom line is that conditions may be improving enough that consumers are willing to spend again. The household debt-service ratio - an estimate of the share of debt payments to disposable personal income - fell to 10.38 percent in Q4’12, reported the Federal Reserve.

That was the lowest since the series started in 1980. In comparison, the ratio, which takes into account outstanding mortgage and consumer debt, was 10.56 percent in the third quarter. It peaked in the third quarter of 2007, shortly before the U.S. economy fell into recession. This may give consumers, who power 70 percent of economic activity, enough confidence to spend again.

Harlan Green © 2013

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