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Americans went on a buying spree this summer, propelling the economy forward at its fastest clip in nearly two years.
Now, with recent surveys showing consumer confidence is eroding, the question isn’t whether the binge is over. Instead, it’s whether spending will slow gradually, taking pressure off inflation — and eventually interest rates — or stop abruptly, potentially triggering a recession during what is shaping up to be a close presidential race.
On Thursday, the government will release its first estimate of economic growth for the third quarter. (Revisions will come in November and December.) The consensus among forecasters is that gross domestic product expanded at a 3.5 percent annualized rate in July through September, up from 2.1 percent in the second quarter. That would be the strongest GDP growth since the final three months of 2021.
Consumer spending, which accounts for about two-thirds of GDP, increased by 4 percent, according to Bloomberg economists, who attributed the surge to “a frenzy of summer travel and entertainment,” including the Beyoncé and Taylor Swift concert tours.
With spending outpacing personal income gains, consumers will eventually have to pull back, the Bloomberg forecasters said.
“We expect consumption to slow in [the fourth quarter] given elevated inflation, high interest rates, and the resumption of student-loan repayments.”
While important, the GDP report looks backward. To gauge what might lie ahead, one tool economists use is tracking consumer expectations for the economy, jobs, and household finances.
Surveys by the Conference Board and the University of Michigan indicate that consumer sentiment has fallen for two straight months. The Conference Board said consumers’ short-term outlook for income, business, and the labor market fell to a level that historically signals a recession within a year.
“Consumers continued to be preoccupied with rising prices in general, and for groceries and gasoline in particular,” Dana Peterson, chief economist at the business-backed think tank, said in a statement. “Consumers also expressed concerns about the political situation and higher interest rates.”
Polling by research firm Morning Consult found that the drop in consumer confidence among its respondents was largest among adults in households earning $100,000 or more, where there has been an uptick in job losses.
What’s at stake
The economy’s sizzling summer underscores the Federal Reserve’s mixed success at bringing down inflation by jacking up interest rates to their highest point since 2007.
Inflation measures have fallen substantially but remain above the Fed’s 2 percent target. The labor market remains too tight for the central bank’s comfort, with not enough workers to fill open jobs.
“The record suggests that a sustainable return to our 2 percent inflation goal is likely to require a period of below-trend growth and some further softening in labor market conditions,” Fed chair Jerome Powell said last week.
Translation: It’s going to take a run of little or no economic growth and a rise in unemployment to defeat inflation and allow interest rates to fall. Those would be less-than-ideal conditions for President Biden’s reelection bid.
The Democrat’s approval ratings are already underwater, with 44 percent of Americans saying they are worse off financially under his presidency, according to a September ABC News/Washington Post poll. Only 30 percent approved of Biden’s performance on the economy.
In a Bloomberg News/Morning Consult poll released last week, 51 percent of swing-state voters said the national economy was better off under Donald Trump, who is the presumptive Republican nominee.
On average, forecasters expect GDP to inch ahead at an annualized rate of 0.7 percent in the fourth quarter and a mere 1 percent in 2024. They see the jobless rate climbing to as high as 4.5 percent next year from 3.8 percent today.
If those forecasts hold up, the country would skirt the conventional definition of a recession: two straight quarters of negative growth. But there isn’t a lot of room for error. And an economy growing at 1 percent while the ranks of the unemployed swell might nonetheless feel a lot like a recession, no matter how hard Biden might try to convince voters otherwise.
Welcome to the new oil rush
On Monday, Chevron said it would buy Hess for $53 billion in stock, gaining access to Guyana’s big coastal oil fields and some North Dakota shale reserves.
The deal comes less than two weeks after ExxonMobil said it would acquire Pioneer Natural Resources, a Texas shale driller, for nearly $60 billion, also in stock.
The back-to-back buyouts signal another round of industry consolidation as Big Oil doubles down on crude and natural gas production despite the necessity of the world converting to renewable energy.
The transition from fossil fuels will take time. But as these deals make clear, energy companies will spend billions of dollars to make sure the changeover takes as long as possible.