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The outlook may have dimmed, but the U.S. economy is still going strong

Myles Udland
Markets Reporter

It’s time to take a deep breath.

The stock market on Tuesday dropped sharply for a second day with the Dow and S&P 500 both in red figures for the year while the Nasdaq is just barely holding onto gains. The small-cap Russell 2000 is now down more than 5% for the year.

And in recent days we’ve noted that investor confidence is fading, so too is executive confidence, while some consumer data painted a mixed picture ahead of the crucial holiday shopping season. Meanwhile, the White House on Tuesday trotted out Larry Kudlow, President Trump’s chief economic advisor, to assure markets that there is continued optimism on potential trade talks with China in a few weeks.

Right now, markets are presenting a situation that is very unsettled and portends what could be a stressful year in 2019. But though the market’s recent stress may reflect an anticipated downturn in the economy by some investors, it does not really reflect an actual downturn in economic data, as at least one political reporter has claimed we are seeing.

In October, the economy created 250,000 new jobs and wages grew at the fastest pace in over nine years. In the third quarter, the economy grew at an annualized pace of 3.5%; the back-to-back quarters of growth in the middle of 2018 were the best stretch for the economy since 2014.

And consumers remain in good shape.

Renaissance Macro economist Neil Dutta noted Tuesday that Redbook’s weekly same-store sales, which tracks changes in same-store sales for about 9,000 large merchandisers, were up 6.2% last week. These Redbook figures are right around the best numbers we’ve seen since before the financial crisis. And comparing Redbook’s data to recent government data suggests that retail sales will rise in the months ahead.

Same-store sales at some of the biggest retailers in the country are near their best levels since the financial crisis, indicating consumers are still in good shape. (Source: Renaissance Macro)

Other data on spending also suggests consumers will continue to power the economy. Data from research firm eMarketer published earlier this month said this holiday shopping season will likely see Americans increase spending by 5.5% over last year with total spending topping $1 trillion for the first time. The first estimate of third quarter GDP also showed that personal consumption rose at an annualized rate of 4% in the third quarter.

And with consumer spending accounting for around 70% of GDP growth, it isn’t likely that we’re going to see an outright contraction in GDP growth until consumers roll over. The data does not suggest this is in the cards.

Household debt payments as a percent of disposable income also remain near historic lows, while the personal savings rate is well above where it stood during the booming years of the mid-00s that preceded the financial crisis.

Economists across Wall Street have, however, been indicating that economic growth — and consumer spending — will likely grow at a slower pace in 2019 as the benefits of the tax cuts wears off. Slowing growth, of course, is not a contraction in economic activity nor does it  necessarily portend recession. (A recession is loosely defined as two-straight quarters of falling GDP growth.)

Jan Hatzius and the economics team at Goldman Sachs said Monday that global real GDP growth will likely slow to 3.5% from 3.8% next year with U.S. growth slowing to 2.5% from 2.9%. The firm adds that the main risk for the U.S. economy remains an overheating economy, not recession.

Michael Feroli and the economics group at JP Morgan also expect growth to slow next year — calling for the annualized pace of real GDP growth to hit  just 1.5% in the fourth quarter of next year — but see a strong labor market keeping the economic expansion alive.

“We’d agree that recession risks are indeed rising,” the firm writes. “The evidence continues to accumulate that the economy is operating beyond its sustainable long-run capacity, and thus that the Fed can’t pause just yet. Even so, we feel that the risk of a downturn in 2019 should not be overstated.”

And while financial markets will almost always be more sensitive to potential dangers than economic forecasts which move at the relatively glacial pace of monthly and quarterly data releases, just because investors are starting to act like the economy is more imperiled than economists and policymakers suggest doesn’t make it so.

And when evaluating the economy as it is — not the economy implied by prices in financial market prices — we all must remain, as the Federal Reserve would say, data dependent. And the data right now are still saying things are good in the U.S. economy.

Myles Udland is a writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter @MylesUdland