The Housing Chronicles Blog: Second Quarter 2018 Economic Update: The Strongest Growth since 2014, But Will it Last?

Friday, August 10, 2018

Second Quarter 2018 Economic Update: The Strongest Growth since 2014, But Will it Last?

It was certainly good news to hear that the initial estimate for GDP growth of 4.1 percent in the second quarter of 2018 was the fastest since the third quarter of 2014. This recent rate of growth compares to 2.2 percent in the first quarter of 2018, 2.3 percent in 2017 and 1.5 percent in 2016. As of early August, GDPNow was also forecasting third quarter growth of 4.3 percent, although both these GDP estimates and forecasts are likely to change as more information comes in.

Most of the surge noted during the second quarter was due to a boost in consumer spending (along with the highest levels of consumer confidence in years), exports, nonresidential fixed investment (including commercial real estate, factories and machinery) and government spending. It would have been even higher were it not for declines in private inventory investment by businesses and residential fixed investment (including home building and remodeling).

One political factor weighing heavily on the boost in growth was the export of goods, with its rise quadrupling from the first quarter to 13.3 percent, as numerous countries stocked up in advance in order to avoid real and potential retaliatory tariffs.   This export surge itself was responsible for about one full point of the 4.1-percent GDP increase. At the same time, the rate of import growth fell sharply to just 0.5 percent, indicating that domestic suppliers either had adequate inventories or capacity to meet demand.

Another political factor was the tax cuts enacted at the beginning of 2018, which boosted consumer spending after a lag in the first quarter, and led to large corporations buying hundreds of billions of their own shares, thus helping to support the stock market. A healthy stock market, in turn, improves both 401k balances as well as consumer confidence.

What we don’t know yet is if the export surge or the boost in consumer spending is sustainable, but we’ll find that out through the rest of the year.

For now, the job market remains tight, with July unemployment dipping back to 3.9 percent along with 157,000 new positions. Looking at just the second quarter of 2018 alone, job growth rose by over 21 percent versus the same quarter of 2017. Moreover, for the first seven months of 2018, job growth increased by over 16 percent versus 2017.

Wages, which had remained stubbornly flat throughout much of the economic recovery, surged during the second quarter of 2018 by 2.8 percent over the previous year, for the sharpest increase since the third quarter of 2008.

Still, with inflation slowly on the rise, most of these wage gains are being eaten up by higher costs for energy, transportation and shelter. Annual core inflation readings from the CPI, PPI and PCE Price Index have recently ranged from 1.9 to 2.8 percent versus the Fed’s preferred increase of 2.0 percent. It’s for that reason that we’re likely to see a total of four interest rate increases by the Fed this year, and up to three more in 2019.

For the housing market, although home builders continue to push forward on meeting demand, they’re up against several headwinds including higher mortgage rates (up 18 percent annually through the first week of August), higher building costs (especially tariffs on Canadian timber) and ongoing difficulties locating suitable land and labor.

Although average monthly housing starts and building permits did fall by a small amount between the first and second quarters of 2018, they were still up moderately for the first half of the year versus 2017. New single-family home sales, which averaged an annual rate of 646,000 in the second quarter of 2018, were also up 6.4 percent for the first half of the 2018 versus 2017.

The pricing premium for new versus existing homes, which approached 40 percent as recently as the end of 2017, steadily fell to just nine percent by June of 2018, thus making a new home much more competitive. In fact, forecasters are pointing to the new home market to drive the housing market in the near term, as the existing home market remains penned in by low inventory, increasing affordability issues and higher interest rates.

Still, with the backlog of unsold new single-family homes rising to 5.7 months in June, some builders are also facing similar affordability challenges with their buyers. In the long run, however, given the huge pent-up demand for housing in the U.S., only the most serious shocks to the economy are likely to derail the long and slow recovery.

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