U.S. Economy Shrank for First Time Since 2011

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The economy in the U.S. contracted for the first time in three years from January through March as companies added to inventories at a slower pace and curtailed investment.

Gross domestic product fell at a 1 percent annualized rate in the first quarter, a bigger decline than projected, after a previously reported 0.1 percent gain, the Commerce Department said today in Washington. The last time the economy shrank was in the same three months of 2011. The median forecast of economists surveyed by Bloomberg called for a 0.5 percent drop.

A pickup in receipts at retailers, stronger manufacturing and faster job growth indicate the first-quarter setback will prove temporary as pent-up demand is unleashed. Federal Reserve policy makers said at their April meeting that the economy has strengthened after adverse weather took its toll.

“The good news is that the first quarter is over, it was a difficult one for the U.S. economy,” said Ryan Sweet, senior economist at Moody’s Analytics Inc. in West Chester, Pennsylvania. “I wouldn’t worry too much about the decline, it’s mostly driven by less construction spending and less inventory accumulation. This quarter should be a good one.”

Another report today showed fewer Americans than forecast filed for unemployment benefits last week. Jobless claims dropped by 27,000 to 300,000. The four-week average decreased to the lowest level since August 2007.

Photographer: Davis Turner/Bloomberg

“Growth in key indicators such as employment, income, and consumer spending have… Read More

Stock-index futures held gains after the figures. The contract on the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index expiring in June rose 0.1 percent to 1,911.5 at 8:52 a.m. in New York.

Economists’ Forecasts

Projections of the 79 economists surveyed by Bloomberg for GDP, the value of all goods and services produced, ranged from a decline of 0.9 percent to a gain of 0.7 percent. Today’s estimate was the second of three readings for the quarter, with the final release scheduled for June 25.

Companies boosted stockpiles by $49 billion in the first quarter, less than the $111.7 billion in the final three months of 2013. Inventories subtracted 1.62 percentage points from GDP from January to March, the most since the fourth quarter 2012. Slower inventory accumulation may encourage factories to step up production should demand accelerate.

“Growth in key indicators such as employment, income, and consumer spending have recently begun to improve from weather-affected levels earlier in the year,” Robert Niblock, the chief executive officer at home-improvement retailer Lowe’s Cos., said on a May 21 earnings call. “Performance has already improved in May, and continued improvement in the macroeconomic landscape and the consumer sentiment” help give the chain a positive outlook in 2014.

Growth Outlook

The economy in the second quarter will expand at a 3.5 percent rate, according to the median projection of 72 economists surveyed by Bloomberg from May 2 to May 7. For all of 2013, the economy expanded 1.9 percent after a 2.8 percent gain in the prior year.

Non-residential investment dropped at a 1.6 percent annualized rate. Companies reduced their spending on structures at a 7.5 percent pace, the biggest decrease in a year. Spending for equipment fell 3.1 percent, the most since the third quarter 2012.

Consumer purchases, which account for about 70 percent of the economy, increased at a 3.1 percent annualized rate in the first quarter. The gain, which added 2.1 percentage points to GDP, was more than the previous estimate of 3 percent.

The increase reflected a stronger pace of spending on services, including utilities as colder winter weather prompted Americans to adjust their thermostats, than the previous three months.

Consumer Demand

Aside from spending on services, consumer demand for goods cooled from the end of 2013, underscoring the importance of faster job and income growth in spurring the economy.

Employers added 288,000 workers in April following gains of 203,000 in March and 222,000 in February, according to the Labor Department.

Greensboro, North Carolina-based grocery chain Fresh Market Inc. was among companies that experienced a pickup in demand once the weather improved.

“Comparable store sales in the month of February were tough due to weather-related interruptions and store closures,” Chief Executive Craig Carlock said in a May 22 earnings call. “Sales in March and April rebounded as we anticipated.”

Auto Sales

Auto dealerships have also been busier. Cars and light trucks sold in April at a 16 million annualized rate following a 16.3 million rate in March, after dropping as low as 15.2 million in January, according to data from Ward’s Automotive Group.

Housing has stabilized as well, with multifamily projects helping to push housing starts up 13.2 percent to a 1.07 million annualized rate in April, the Commerce Department reported May 16. Permits for future projects increased, a sign activity might accelerate in coming months.

Today’s report offered a first look at corporate profits. Earnings fell 9.8 percent in the first quarter from the previous three months, and declined 3 percent from the same period last year.

Exports declined at a 6 percent rate in the first quarter, while imports rose as trade subtracted 0.95 percentage point from GDP, the most since the second quarter 2010.

Price pressures remain muted in the face of low demand. A measure of inflation, which is tied to consumer spending and excludes food and energy, climbed at a 1.2 percent annualized rate compared with 1.3 percent in the prior period. The gain was initially estimated at 1.3 percent. The Fed’s goal is for increases around 2 percent in the long run.

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