WASHINGTON — The US economy might not be strong enough for the Federal Reserve to slow its bond purchases later this year.
That was the takeaway from economists after the government cut its estimate Wednesday of growth in the January-March quarter to a 1.8 percent annual rate, sharply below its previous estimate of a 2.4 percent rate, as consumers spent less than previously thought.
Most economists think growth will remain low as consumers and businesses adjust to federal spending cuts and higher taxes. Growth is expected to reach an annual rate of only about 2 percent in the April-June quarter. Even if the economy improves slightly, it would be hard to meet the Fed’s forecast of 2.3 percent to 2.6 percent growth for 2013.
Chairman Ben Bernanke rattled investors last week when he said the Fed will probably slow its bond-buying this year if the economy continues to strengthen. Bond purchases have helped keep interest rates low. If the economy weakens, the Fed will not hesitate to delay its pullback or step up bond purchases, Bernanke added.
Jennifer Lee, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets, said that if the April-June quarter proves tepid, the Fed will be looking at three straight quarters of subpar growth.
“The Fed won’t taper [bond purchases] under these conditions,” Lee said. “They need convincing signs of a pickup.”
Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisers, suspects the Fed will wait until next year to slow its bond buying. Like most economists, Naroff thinks growth will pick up in the October-December quarter and in 2014.
“If the Fed doesn’t take notice of this revision to growth, they would run the risk of being perceived as largely clueless,” Naroff said.
Stocks surged Wednesday, a sign that investors also suspect the economy might prove too weak for the Fed to begin scaling back its stimulus later this year. The Dow Jones industrial average rose 149.83 points to close at 14,910.14. Broader indexes also surged.
Most of the revision to last quarter’s growth was due to a decline in consumer spending to an annual rate of 2.6 percent. Though that pace is the fastest in two years, it is sharply below the 3.4 percent rate previously estimated. The downgraded growth estimate was due in large part to weaker spending on services, such as travel, legal services, health care, and utilities. Spending on long-lasting manufactured goods, considered a barometer of consumers’ confidence in the economy, was stronger than estimated.
Economists said the lower estimate suggests that an increase in Social Security taxes this year might be squeezing consumers more than expected. The tax increase has reduced take-home pay for most Americans. A person earning $50,000 a year has roughly $1,000 less to spend. A high-earning couple has up to $4,500 less.
“There was still acceleration in the growth of consumer spending — just not as much,” said Paul Edelstein of IHS Global Insight.
The government’s revisions also pointed to less export growth and weaker business investment spending, due mainly to less spending on buildings than previously estimated.
For each quarter, the government issues three growth estimates as it collects increasingly precise data on the nation’s gross domestic product.
GDP reflects the economy’s total output of goods and services, from haircuts to aircraft carriers.
The biggest drag on the economy remains government spending. It fell during the first quarter at an annual rate of 4.8 percent. That shaved 0.9 of a percentage point from growth.