Economy offers mixed picture day before election

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A mixed picture of the U.S. economy emerged one day before key midterm elections that have focused on the nation’s financial health.

Spending by Americans slowed in September and their incomes fell for the first time in more than a year. At the same time, manufacturing activity grew by the most in five months and the weak construction industry showed a little life.

The new data reported by the government and a private trade group Monday suggest the economy is growing, albeit at an anemic pace. Some analysts worry that conditions could worsen after the election when government programs that have been propping up the economy end.

“With the job market as tough as it is and with government help beginning to fade, income gains are going to be very hard to come by,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics.

Consumer spending is growing, but at a much slower rate than during the summer. It rose 0.2 percent in September after 0.5 percent gains in July and August, the Commerce Department said.

A major reason spending is slowing is that incomes fell for the first time since July 2009, just after the recession officially ended. The 0.1 percent decline in September followed a 0.4 percent rise in August that had been pushed higher by the return of extended unemployment benefits.

A separate report showed manufacturing activity expanded last month at the fastest pace since May — the 15th straight month for growth. The Institute for Supply Management said its manufacturing index read 56.9 in October, up from 54.4 in September. A reading above 50 indicates growth.

And the struggling construction industry posted small gains in September, buoyed by increases in government projects and residential spending. The Commerce Department said spending on building projects rose 0.5 percent after having falling in August to the lowest point since July 2000. Even with the small September gain, construction activity remains 34 percent below the peak hit in 2006 when builders were enjoying a boom in residential housing.

“It is encouraging that economic growth no longer appears to be slowing. Nonetheless, the economy is not growing fast enough to reduce the unemployment rate or boost inflation,” said Paul Dales, U.S. economist with Capital Economics.

In response to the weak economy, the Federal Reserve this week is expected to announce a program to buy Treasury bonds. The effort is designed to drive interest rates lower and spur economic activity.

Incomes fell in September after getting a notable boost in August from the reinstatement of an extended unemployment benefits program. The program had temporarily lapsed in July after Republicans had blocked an extension.

Those extended benefits expire at the end of November. It’s unclear if Democrats can muster enough votes to pass another extension of benefits during a lame-duck session of Congress this month, especially in light of expected Republican election gains on Tuesday.

Zandi estimates roughly 1 million jobless workers a month, over six months, would be cut off from benefits if Congress declines to extend the program after the election.

That would be a major constraint on the economy because the unemployed typically spend their benefits almost immediately, he said.

“That lost income will show up as lost spending pretty quickly,” Zandi said.

The extended jobless benefits program would end just as public works projects under the government’s $814 billion stimulus program start to wind down, as well. Still, economists believe there is enough spending for highways and other projects in the pipeline to last through next summer.

Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group, said the loss of extended unemployment benefits would be a drag on consumer spending. But he expects it will be partially offset by private sector hiring in the coming months.

“I think that we will have enough people going back to work that it will help support modest growth in consumer spending,” Hoffman said. He predicts between 2.5 percent and 2.75 percent growth through the first six months of next year.

Consumer spending is watched closely because it accounts for 70 percent of total economic activity.

The government reported Friday that the economy grew at an annual rate of 2 percent in the July-September quarter. That’s only slightly better than 1.7 percent growth in the April-June quarter.

Consumer spending had helped boost third-quarter growth. Spending rose at an annual rate of 2.6 percent. It was the best showing since a 4.1 percent rise in consumer spending at the end of 2006, before a severe recession hit.

The savings rate fell to 5.3 percent in September, the lowest rate since August 2009. But it is still well above the 2.1 percent average savings rate for all of 2007.

An inflation gauge tied to consumer spending rose a slight 0.1 percent in September and was flat after excluding volatile food and energy.