Third-Quarter Growth in U.S. Revised Higher on Services

By Victoria Stilwell

Decmeber 20 (Bloomberg) — The economy expanded in the third quarter at the fastest rate in almost two years as Americans stepped up spending on services such as health care and companies invested more in software.

Jump in healthcare??? And the software gain was the new ‘intellectual’ category.

Gross domestic product climbed at a revised 4.1 percent annualized rate, the strongest since the final three months of 2011 and up from a previous estimate of 3.6 percent, Commerce Department data showed today in Washington. The gain exceeded the most optimistic projection in a Bloomberg survey.

Inventories accounted for a third of the increase in GDP in the third quarter, showing companies were confident about the prospects for demand. Stronger retail sales in October and November underscore the Federal Reserves view that the worlds largest economy is improving.

Right, a boom in unsold inventories. Especially cars, where the inventory was on the high side even for the November spike in sales to 16.4 million (annual rate) from a shutdown depressed 15.2 million for October. And it looks like December total vehicle sales are back down below the two month average, which means the inventory to sales ratio is even worse. No surprise Jan auto production cutbacks have already been announced.

You have equity markets supporting household net worth, rising home values and also payroll gains and falling unemployment, so we do really look for consumption to start picking up, said Robert Rosener, associate economist at Credit Agricole CIB in New York, whose forecast for growth of 3.8 percent was the highest in the Bloomberg survey. This is a very good sign for momentum going into the fourth quarter.

The median forecast of 72 economists surveyed by Bloomberg projected a 3.6 percent gain in GDP, the value of all goods and services produced in the U.S. Forecasts ranged from 3.3 percent to 3.8 percent. Stocks rose after the figures, with the Standard & Poors 500 Index advancing 0.6 percent to 1,820.78 at 11:46 a.m. in New York.

Services Spending

Consumer purchases, which account for almost 70 percent of the economy, increased 2 percent, more than the previously reported 1.4 percent, the revised data showed.

Better but still weak year over year, and, again, healthcare spending of some sort accounted for much of the upward revision.

Spending on services contributed 0.32 percentage point to third-quarter growth, up from a previously reported 0.02 percentage point. In addition to the pickup in outlays for health care, Americans spent more on recreational services.

Outlays for non-durable goods climbed at a 2.9 percent rate in the third quarter, led by more spending on gasoline.

Inventories increased at a $115.7 billion annualized pace in the third quarter, the most in three years, after a previously reported $116.5 billion annualized rate. In the second quarter, they rose at a $56.6 billion pace.

Stockpiles added 1.67 percentage points to GDP last quarter, little changed from the 1.68 percentage-point contribution in the previous reading.

More Optimistic

While economists grew more optimistic about demand in the fourth quarter, GDP will nonetheless be restrained as the pace of inventory growth cools.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. economists project the economy will grow 2 percent from October through December, up from the 1.5 percent rate they had penciled in prior to the Commerce Departments Dec. 12 retail sales report. Barclays Plc has raised its fourth-quarter tracking estimate to 2.3 percent from 2 percent before the retail figures.

Domestic final sales, which exclude inventories, increased 2.5 percent in the third quarter compared with a previously reported 1.9 percent increase.

Corporate spending on equipment rose 0.2 percent, compared with a previous reading of no change. Business investment in intellectual property was revised up to a 5.8 percent increase from 1.7 percent, reflecting more spending on software.

Further investment will depend on how much confidence companies have that the economy will accelerate.

Capital Spending

Honeywell International Inc., whose products range from cockpit controls to thermostats, expects capital expenditures in the range of $1.2 billion or more in 2014, up about 30 percent from this year.

Were very disciplined in terms of cap-ex, Chief Financial Officer David Anderson said on the companys 2014 guidance call on Dec. 17, referring to capital expenditures. We really have to see the whites of the eyes of the economic return characteristics to really commit.

Economic indicators are pointing to just a continued resilience, not exuberance, but resilience and expansion in the U.S. economy, Anderson added.

Todays report also included corporate profits. Before-tax earnings rose at a 1.9 percent rate after climbing at a 3.3 percent pace in the prior period. They increased 5.7 percent from the same time last year.

Profit growth continues to slow, even with the higher GDP.

Residential real estate is underpinning the economy, as rising prices boost household wealth and growing demand helps the industry overcome rising mortgage rates.

Home Construction

Home construction increased at a 10.3 percent annualized rate in the third quarter. While slower than the 13 percent pace previously reported, the figure primarily reflected revisions to brokers commissions and other ownership transfer costs, todays report showed.

Data from the Commerce Department this week showed that housing starts jumped 22.7 percent to a 1.09 million annualized rate, the most since February 2008, while permits for future projects also held near a five-year high, indicating that the pickup will be sustained into next year.

Slower growth in home construction and most homebuilders reporting flattish sales, especially after mortgage rates went up, and mortgage purchase apps continue to be down about 10% from last year as well. Let me suggest that 22% jump of the initial release of November housing starts seems suspect as there are no reports of a leap higher in home sales or construction from the housing companies or mortgage originators. And permits were in fact down.

Other signs show that fiscal drag, which weighed on growth during 2013, will start to ease. U.S. lawmakers this week passed the first bipartisan federal budget produced by a divided Congress in 27 years, easing $63 billion in automatic spending cuts and averting another government shutdown.

Yes, it could have been worse, but a variety of tax cuts do expire at year end, as do extended unemployment benefits. But the bottom line is the federal deficit (the ‘allowance’ the economy gets from Uncle Sam) is likely to fall to under $500 billion in 2014, after falling from just under $1 trillion in 2012 to just over 600 billion in 2013. And worse, the automatic stabilizers are extremely aggressive this time around, where 2% growth cuts the deficit maybe by as much as 4% growth cut it in past cycles.

Government outlays increased 0.4 percent in the third quarter, led by a 1.7 percent gain in state and local spending that was the same as the previous reading. Federal spending decreased 1.5 percent.

They fail to mention that state and local tax receipts also rose, so overall the closing of the state and local budget deficits from the recession means there is less fiscal support from the states.

Tighter fiscal policy has made stimulating the U.S. economy even more of an uphill battle for the Fed. The central bank this week announced it would scale back its bond-purchase program by $10 billion, to $75 billion a month, after seeing an improved outlook for the labor market.

This has been done in the face of a very tight, unusually tight fiscal policy for a recovery period, Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said Dec. 18 during a press conference at the conclusion of a meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee.

I’m hoping for a good economy as well, but with housing and cars- the main engines of domestic credit growth- coming off the boil, and Uncle Sam’s allowance payments to the economy (deficit spending) down to less than $50 billion/mo (3% of GDP%) and falling from closer to $80 billion/mo not long ago, seems to me the jury is still out.

A few of last week’s charts: