US Economic Growth to Slow to a Crawl in First Quarter

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That’s how little the U.S. economy grew in the first quarter—virtually stalling—if one government estimate proves to be accurate. 

The estimate, the latest from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s GDPNow tracker, suggests a serious shift in the economy. If the Tuesday GDPNow reading holds up when the government releases its actual numbers on Thursday, it would be a sharp deceleration from the 6.9% growth in the fourth quarter of 2021 and the worst quarter for growth since the economy was crushed by the pandemic in 2020. GDPNow measures the annualized growth rate in inflation-adjusted gross domestic product, or GDP.

While no one was expecting the economy to keep up the fourth-quarter pace (before the pandemic, quarterly growth had been under 3% for years), GDP is one barometer for the standard of living, so slower growth could mean people and businesses are worse off. Some economists think there’s a good chance that the U.S. will skid into a recession as soon as this year, in large part because the Federal Reserve plans to tackle soaring inflation by raising its benchmark interest rate, and in turn, borrowing costs, throughout the economy. And when a recession is underway, it usually means job losses.

The Atlanta Fed doesn’t make an official prediction but instead keeps a running tally of how GDP is faring based on the latest economic data available. Only last week its model estimated 1.3% growth, but since then the Census Bureau revised its data on sales at retailers. Economists at Deutsche Bank reduced their forecast after the revision too, saying they expect no growth at all. The median forecast of economists polled by Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal is 1% growth. 

Consumer spending contributes the majority of GDP, and higher prices for things like gasoline have been hammering household budgets, hurting people’s ability to spend on nonessentials. 

In fact, people spent 21% less on recreation in March, and also cut back on furniture, plane tickets, and alcohol because of the higher prices on necessities like food and gas, according to a survey by Morning Consult.

The surge in inflation may take a more noticeable toll on consumer spending in the second quarter, economists said. In the first quarter, a January wave of COVID-19 cases disrupted business, and supply chain problems reduced how much U.S. producers were able to export. Not only that, but we shouldn’t expect businesses to spend as much money restocking their inventories, economists said. GDP grew so much in the fourth quarter because of those investments.

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Article Sources

  1. Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. “GDPNow.”

  2. Bureau of Economic Analysis. “Gross Domestic Product (Third Estimate), Corporate Profits, and GDP by Industry, Fourth Quarter and Year 2021.”

  3. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Economic Growth: Causes, Benefits, and Current Limits | Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.”

  4. Brookings Institution. “Recessions and the Costs of Job Loss.”

  5. Morning Consult. “U.S. Consumer Spending Report - April.” Page 7.

  6. CIBC Capital Markets. “Economics - The Week Ahead.”

  7. Wells Fargo. “Weekly Economic & Financial Commentary.”