WASHINGTON- US business investment contracted more sharply than previously estimated in the second quarter and corporate profit growth was tepid, casting a shadow on an economy that is being stalked by financial market fears of a recession.
The downturn in business spending has been blamed on the Trump administration’s nearly 15-month trade war with China. The soft investment and sluggish profit gains, reported by the Commerce Department on Thursday, could raise doubts on consumers’ ability to continue driving the economy.
A strong labor market is fueling consumer spending, keeping economic growth on a moderate path. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell last week said trade policy tensions, which “have waxed and waned, and elevated uncertainty is weighing on US investment and exports,” posing an ongoing risk to the longest economic expansion on record, now in its 11th year.
Powell said US central bank contacts had told policymakers that trade policy uncertainty “has discouraged them from investing in their businesses.” The Fed cut interest rates again last Wednesday after lowering borrowing costs in July for the first time since 2008.
“Given the uncertainty in the economy, businesses are very cautious about spending in construction as well as equipment, and this is not a very good sign,” said Sung Won Sohn, a business economics professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “After all, businesses are the ones hiring people, providing income and the buying power for consumers.”
Business investment declined at a 1.0 percent annualized rate last quarter, the government said in its third reading of second-quarter gross domestic product. That was the steepest decline since the fourth quarter of 2015.
Business investment was previously estimated to have dropped at a 0.6 percent pace. It was pulled down by an 11.1 percent rate of decline in spending on structures, which reflected decreases in the categories of commercial and healthcare, and mining exploration, shafts and wells.
After-tax profits without inventory valuation and capital consumption adjustment, which correspond to S&P 500 profits, increased at a downwardly revised $59.7 billion, or 3.3 percent rate. Profits were previously reported to have advanced by $86.0 billion, or at a 4.8 percent rate in the second quarter.
There were downward revisions to profits from the rest of the world and domestic industry profits.
Gross domestic product increased at an unrevised 2.0 percent rate in the second quarter as the strongest consumer spending in 1-1/2 years offset weak exports and a slower pace of inventory investment. The economy grew at a 3.1 percent rate in the January-March quarter. It expanded 2.6 percent in the first half of the year.
But when measured from the income side, the US economy grew at a 1.8 percent rate in the second quarter. Gross domestic income (GDI) was previously reported to have increased at a 2.1 percent pace in the April-June quarter. It rose at a 3.2 percent rate in the first quarter.
The average of GDP and GDI, also referred to as gross domestic output and considered a better measure of economic activity, rose at a 1.9 percent rate last quarter, rather than the 2.1 percent pace estimated last month. That was a slowdown from a 3.2 percent pace of growth in the first three months of the year.
Inflation was a little bit firmer than previously thought in the second quarter.
US financial markets were little moved by the data as investors watched unfolding developments on the accusations President Donald Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Democratic presidential front-runner and former Vice President Joe Biden.
The dollar was flat against a basket of currencies, while US Treasuries rose. Stocks on Wall Street were trading lower.
The economy is largely losing speed as the stimulus from the White House’s $1.5 trillion tax-cut package and a government spending blitz fades. Economists are forecasting growth this year around 2.5 percent, below the Trump administration’s 3 percent target.
Growth in consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of US economic activity, surged at a 4.6 percent rate in the second quarter, a pace last seen in late 2017.
The last time consumer spending grew faster was in the fourth quarter of 2014, when it advanced 4.9 percent. – Reuters