U.S. Economic Expansion Begins to Slow

The U.S. economy expanded at an annualized rate of 2.1% in the fourth quarter in 2019, despite investment in structures declining at an annualized rate of 10.1%.

Gdp Table Q4 19
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The U.S. economy expanded at an annualized rate of 1.9% in the third quarter of 2019 despite contracting levels of nonresidential investment, according to an Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) analysis of U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis data. Nonresidential fixed investment declined at a 3% annual rate in the third quarter after declining at a 1% rate in the second quarter. The annual rate for nonresidential fixed investment in structures, a component closely tied to construction, declined 15.3% in the third quarter. Investment in structures has now contracted in four of the previous five quarters, including an 11.1% decline in the second quarter of 2019.

“Today’s report reinforced a number of observations regarding the U.S. economy and the nation’s nonresidential construction sector,” said ABC Chief Economist Anirban Basu. "First, the economy is slowing. While consumer spending and government outlays remain elevated, gross private domestic investment continues to slip, this time by 1.5% on an annualized basis in the third quarter. While this is less than the 6.3% decline registered during the second quarter, the key takeaway is that the current economic expansion is narrowing, increasingly fueled by consumers and public agencies taking on additional debt."

“Second, certain segments of nonresidential construction continue to soften,” said Basu. “Recent data regarding nonresidential construction spending indicate weaker spending in categories such as office and lodging. This was reflected in today’s GDP report, which indicated that spending on structures contracted significantly during the third quarter. For the most part, nonresidential construction spending growth continues to be driven by public construction, including in categories such as water supply and public safety.

“The primary question now is whether the slowdown in economic activity will persist into 2020,” said Basu. “Many factors suggest it will, including a weakening global economy, a U.S. manufacturing sector that is arguably already in recession, vulnerability attributable to massive accumulations of public, corporate and household debt and the uncertain outcomes attached to ongoing trade negotiations. On the other hand, U.S. equity markets have continued to surge higher in the context of better-than-expected corporate earnings and ongoing accommodation by the Federal Reserve. Put it all together and the outlook for the U.S. economy has seldom been more uncertain, especially given next year’s elections.