The following six facts give a snapshot of how the U.S. economy is doing. Economists call them leading economic indicators because they measure the early influencers on growth.
- Unemployment rates have been decreasing following high job losses in 2020—the unemployment rate in December 2021 was 3.9%, down from 4.2% in November 2021.
- The economy grew 2.3% in the third quarter of 2021. This increase follows 6.3% growth in the first quarter and 6.7% growth in the second quarter. This is the measurement of gross domestic product (GDP).
- Orders for durable goods like machinery and equipment were -24.6% in the third quarter of 2021, while non-durable goods (pharmaceuticals, food, and lodging) were positive at 2.0%. In the second quarter, rates were at an annualized rate of 11.6% for durable goods and 13.9% for non-durable goods.
- Interest rates continue to stay at record lows as policymakers try to stimulate demand.
- Inflation was 7.0% in December 2021, up from 6.8% in November. That's the Consumer Price Index for all items over the last 12 months, before seasonal adjustment.
- The stock market is holding steady, with the S&P 500 and Nasdaq dipping in January, but overall sustaining growth over the last year.
Keep reading to learn how the U.S. economy is doing.
Jobs and Unemployment
The economy added 199,000 jobs in December 2021. The unemployment rate has been improving but is still above pre-pandemic levels.
In the monthly jobs report, the Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys how many workers businesses added to their payroll. It doesn't count farmworkers because farming is seasonal.
Companies tend to only add workers when they have enough demand to keep them busy.
Manufacturing jobs are an essential indicator. The sector employs over 12 million workers and pays an average of $92,832 a year, including benefits. When manufacturers start laying off workers, it's possible the economy is heading into a recession. In April 2020, the economy lost 1.3 million jobs in the manufacturing industry. Manufacturing has gained jobs since then, but nowhere near enough to replace the loss.
The unemployment rate in December 2021 was 3.9%, which is 0.3 percentage points higher than in November. Unemployment is a lagging indicator, which is good for confirming trends. Companies usually wait until a recession is well underway before laying off workers. It also takes a while to reduce the unemployment rate, even after hundreds of thousands of new jobs are created.
Gross Domestic Product (GDP)
The most recent gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate was 2.3% for the third quarter of 2021. This growth continues the recovery from the 2020 second-quarter rate of -31.2%, the worst contraction in U.S. history. Before then, the deepest quarterly contraction was a 10.0% drop in the first quarter of 1958.
Economists use GDP, among other indicators, to measure economic health. GDP is the dollar value of everything produced in the last year. The GDP growth rate compares this quarter with the last.
Durable goods decreased by 24.6% in the third quarter of 2021 after increasing by 50.0% and 11.6% in the first and second quarters, respectively. Durable goods are machinery, equipment, and raw materials that businesses use in their operations. Some examples would be excavators, tanks, and airplanes. In fact, commercial planes are the largest component of durable goods.
To be considered a durable good, the equipment must last at least three years. They are expensive, so businesses put off buying them until they need them. As a result, they are a great indicator of economic health because businesses only buy them when they feel confident about the future.
The current fed funds rate targeted range is between 0.0% and 0.25%. In a healthy economy, the fed funds rate target range stays at a level that complements an average inflation rate of 2% in the long term. This corresponds to lower interest rates for businesses and consumers. The Federal Reserve has kept the target rate range low to encourage lending, boost growth, and increase employment and inflation.
The federal funds rate target range is important because it guides most other interest rates. The second most important rate is the yield on the 10-year Treasury note. It guides fixed-rate loans like 15-year mortgages.
Interest rates control how expensive it is for businesses and consumers to borrow. When interest rates are low, it costs less to borrow, so you can buy a bigger house, a nicer car, and more furniture. Businesses will borrow more to expand their companies, buy equipment, and hire more workers. The opposite happens if interest rates rise.
There are times when interest rates are too low, such as when banks can't make enough profit from their loans. Consumers know interest rates will remain low, so they aren't in a hurry to borrow. When that happens, it creates a liquidity trap. The fix for the trap is to raise interest rates so that people take out loans now to avoid higher rates in the future.
The inflation rate, as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI), was 7.0% in December 2021, up from 6.8% in November 2021. Inflation is a measurement of the rate at which prices increase. When inflation is low, it means demand is too weak to push up prices. When inflation is high, it means you'll pay more for the same goods and services that you paid for last month or year.
The December 2021 core inflation rate, as measured by the PCE Price Index, was 5.5% year over year. The core inflation rate leaves out volatile food and gas prices, and the year-over-year rate removes the impact of seasonal variations.
For those reasons, the Federal Reserve monitors the PCE core inflation rate. The current rate is higher than the Fed's target inflation rate of 2%.
A low inflation rate accompanied by the start of the pandemic is what allowed the Fed to lower its target rate range to near zero at its March 15, 2020, Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting.
A 2% inflation rate is healthy because consumers expect prices to rise. That makes them more likely to buy now rather than wait. The increased demand spurs economic growth. The Fed uses the inflation rate when deciding whether to adjust the fed funds rate range.
The stock market can be a reflection of corporate profitability. It also tells you what investors think the economy will do. The stock market recovered surprisingly well after the pandemic, with the S&P 500 continuously hitting new highs between October 2020 and December 2021.
In January 2022, the S&P 500 and Nasdaq dipped, with the Nasdaq entering a correction on Jan. 19, 2022. However, both indexes were still above where they were in January 2021.
The three most important U.S. stock market indices are the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the S&P 500, and the Nasdaq Composite.
On Nov. 8, 2021, the Dow hit another record high when it closed at 36,432.22. It hit another high in January 2022, when it closed at 36,799.65. The Nasdaq Composite was also climbing throughout 2021, before dipping into a correction in January 2022.
It's a healthy sign when the market sets higher highs for a long time. Sometimes the stock market trades sideways. That could mean it's digesting a long string of gains. However, the market can enter a correction when prices fall 10% from their high. It's a crash if it drops severely in a day or across a few days. A drop of 20% or more from the recent high signals a bear market, which can be accompanied by a recession.
Correction - Jan. 21, 2022: This article has been updated to correct the movement of the S&P 500 in January 2022, and to incorporate the Nasdaq market correction that took place that month.