The economy is growing, and things are getting better, but the sluggish rates of growth and potentially catastrophic threats facing the current recovery keep economists cautious about the future.
The economy has clearly mounted an impressive comeback in the past few months, but we definitely need to be aware of the main risks that are still there, said Eric Lascelles, chief economist at RBC Global Asset Management. If you think about 2011, it started pretty well, and then the wheels fell off.
The impressive comeback was obvious from data released over the past few weeks, which showed manufacturing and consumer income expanding at rates higher than economists predicted and suggested the housing market had found a bottom. But threats, ranging from political dysfunction in Europe or at home to risks like an Iran-induced oil shock, have also emerged from the headlines.
Some key areas of interest:
Labor. January saw more jobs at better wages for more productive workers. The unemployment rate dropped 0.2 percentage points in January to 8.3 percent, and non-farm productivity increased 0.7 percent from the previous quarter, as employee hours increased at the fastest pace since 2010. More than 250,000 private non-farm jobs were created in January. The positive trend in the numbers continued into Thursday: unemployment claims for the week prior fell to a seasonally-adjusted 358,000, the second-lowest level since April 2008.
Consumer strength. The core price index grew at an annualized 2.4 percent in December, slightly above the two percent target the U.S. central bank seeks. The consumer confidence index fell to 61.1 in January, down from a highly positive reading the previous month, but still positive. Personal spending, however, did not go up in December, something of a party spoiling surprise given the growth in personal income and the fact consumers tacked on $33.1 billion in personal debt during the month.
Manufacturing. Better-than-expected data eased fears that strong gains in December were a fluke. The ISM manufacturing index was positive for the second month in a row, reading a higher-than-forecast 54.1.
Housing. Construction spending increased a much-better-than-expected 1.5 percent in December compared with the previous month, although housing construction was not the main driver. The number of lenders tightening standards for residential loans declined and the number of borrowers seeking prime mortgages rose, suggesting the prime mortgage market is near balance, said John E. Silvia, chief economis of the Wells Fargo economics group.