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The headline hourly earnings data for May were dull, showing the year-over-year rate unchanged at 2.5%. That's up from 2.1% in the year to May 2015, but it's not an alarming rate of increase. But the Atlanta Fed's median hourly earnings data, which track the wages of individuals from year-to-year, show wages up 3.4% year-over-year, the fastest rate of increase since February 2009.
With only three weeks to go until the release of the initial official estimate of first quarter GDP, the Atlanta Fed's GDPNow measure shows growth at just 0.4%. Our own estimate, which includes our subjective forecasts for the missing data--the Atlanta Fed's measure is entirely model-based--is a bit higher, at 1%, and both measures could easily be revised significantly.
The obvious answer to the question posed in our title is that it's far too early to tell what will happen to first quarter growth. More than half the quarter hasn't even happened yet, and data for January are still extremely patchy, with no official reports on retail sales, industrial production, housing, capex, inventories or international trade yet available. For what it's worth, the Atlanta Fed's GDPNow model signals growth of 3.4%, though we note that it substantially overstated the first estimate of growth in the fourth quarter.
Three of today's economic reports, all for December, could move the needle on fourth quarter GDP growth. Ahead of the data, we're looking for growth of 1.8%, a bit below the consensus, 2.2%, and significantly weaker than the Atlanta Fed's GDPNow model, which projects 2.8%.
The latest iteration of the Atlanta Fed's GDPNow model of second quarter GDP growth shows the economy expanding at a 4.5% annualized rate.
The latest model-based third quarter GDP forecast from the Atlanta Fed is 3.6%, well above the 2.5% consensus forecast reported by Bloomberg. We are profoundly skeptical of so-called "tracking models" of GDP growth, because they are based mostly on forecasts and assumptions until very close to the actual GDP release.
In the wake of last week's strong core retail sales numbers for November, the Atlanta Fed's GDPNow model for fourth quarter GDP growth shot up to 3.0% from 2.4%.
Last week, the Atlanta Fed updated its median hourly earnings series with new October data, showing wage growth accelerating to an eight-year high of 3.9%. That's a full percentage point higher than the increase in this measure of wages in the year to October 2015, and it follows a spring and summer during which wage growth appeared to be topping-out at just under 3½%.
Yesterday's raft of data had no net impact on our forecast for second quarter GDP growth, which we still think will be about 21⁄4%.
Fed Chair Yellen's speech in Cleveland yesterday elaborated on the key themes from last week's FOMC meeting.
Net foreign trade made a positive contribution of 0.2 percentage points to GDP growth in the second quarter, matching the Q1 performance.
We have tweaked our third quarter GDP forecast in the wake of the September advance international trade and inventory data; we now expect today's first estimate to show that the economy expanded at a 4.0% annualized rate.
We expect to learn today that the economy barely grew at all in the fourth quarter. At least, that's what we think the first estimate of growth, due today, will show. This number will then be revised twice over the next couple of months, then again when revisions for the past three years are released in July. Thereafter, the numbers are subject to further annual revisions indefinitely.
The latest data from container ports around the country are consistent with our view that imports are still correcting after the surge late last year, triggered by the hurricanes.
We didn't believe the first estimate of Q1 GDP growth, 0.7%, and we won't believe today's second estimate, either. The data are riddled with distortions, most notably the long-standing problem of residual seasonality, which depressed the number by about one percentage point.
The commentariat was very excited Friday by the inversion of the curve, with three-year yields dipping to 2.24% while three-month bills yield 2.45%.
The wide spread in first quarter GDP growth "trackers"--which at this point are more model and assumption than actual data--is indicative of the uncertainty surrounding the international trade and inventory components.
We aren't perturbed by the undershoot in December payrolls, relative both to the October and November numbers and all the leading indicators.
We already know that the month-to-month movements in the key labor market components of the December NFIB small business survey were mixed; the data were released last week, ahead the official employment report, as usual.
We just can't get away from the deeply vexed question of wages; specifically, why the rate of growth of nominal hourly earnings has risen only to just over 2.5%, even though the historical relationship between wage gains and the tightness of the labor market points to increases of 4%-plus.
The release yesterday of the weekly Redbook chainstore sales report for the week ended Saturday August 4 means that we now have a complete picture of July sales.
Today's advance inventory and international trade data for December could change our Q4 GDP forecast significantly.
In the wake of yesterday's ADP report, which showed private payrolls up 250K in December, we have revised our forecast for today's official headline number up to 240K from 210K.
We have argued consistently for some time that the next year will bring a clear acceleration in U.S. wage growth, because the unemployment rate has fallen below the Nairu and a host of business survey indicators point to clear upward wage pressures. Nominal wage growth has been constrained, in our view, by the unexpected decline in core inflation from 2012 through early 2015, which boosted real wage growth and, hence, eased the pressure from employees for bigger nominal raises.
August's 14-year high in the ISM manufacturing index, reported yesterday, clearly is a noteworthy event from a numerology perspective, but we doubt it marks the start of a renewed upward trend.
We learned last week that the U.S. no longer has a coherent dollar policy.
We see no compelling reason to expect a significant revision to the third quarter GDP numbers today, so our base case is that the second estimate, 3.3%, will still stand.
The details of the substantial pay raises being offered to some 18K JP Morgan employees over the next three years are much less important than the signal sent by the company's response to the tightening labor market. In an economy with 144M people on payrolls, hefty raises for JP Morgan employees won't move the needle in the hourly earnings data.
The apparent softness of business capex is worrying the Fed.
We argued earlier this week that the data on the consumer economy are likely to be rather stronger than the industrial numbers.
The falling unemployment rate and the threat it poses to the inflation outlook mean that the labor market numbers in the NFIB small business survey attract more attention than the other data in the report.
The FOMC meeting today will be a non-event from a policy perspective but we are very curious to see what both the written statement and the Chair will have to say about the unexpected strength of the economy in the first quarter.
Our hopes of a hefty rebound in payrolls in October, following the hurricane-hit September number, have been dashed by the imminent landfall of Hurricane Michael in Florida panhandle.
Everyone heard San Francisco Fed president Williams's suggestion Monday that central banks could raise their inflation targets in response to the sustained slow growth and lower-than-expected inflation of recent years. It's not clear, though, that markets grasped the scale of the increase he thinks might be appropriate.
Fed Chair Yellen's Testimony yesterday pretended the election hadn't happened, and ignored the incoming administration's plans for a huge fiscal stimulus. She did address the issue under questioning, though, pointing out that fiscal stimulus could have inflationary consequences and that the Fed will have to factor-in to its decisions whatever Congress decides to do to taxes and spending.
Perhaps the single strongest U.S. economic data series in recent months has been construction spending, which has risen by more than 1%, month-to-month, in four of the past five months.
Should you be feeling in the mood to panic over inflation risks--or more positively, benefit from the markets' underpricing of inflation risks--consider the following scenario. First, assume that the uptick in wages reported in October really does mark the start of the long-awaited sustained acceleration promised by a 5% unemployment rate and employers' difficulty in finding people to hire. Second, assume that the rental property market remains extremely tight. Third, assume that the abrupt upturn in medical costs in the October CPI is a harbinger o f things to come. And finally, assume that the Fed hawks are right in their view that the initial increase in interest rates will--to quote the September FOMC minutes--"...spur, rather than restrain economic activity". Under these conditions, what happens to inflation?
It's much too soon to have a very firm view on fourth quarter GDP growth, not least because almost half the quarter hasn't happened yet.
On a trade-weighted basis, sterling has dropped by only 1.5% since the start of the month, but it is easy to envisage circumstances in which it would fall significantly further.
We have had something of a rethink about the likely timing of the coming cyclical downturn. Previously, we thought the economy would start to slow markedly in the middle of next year, with a mild recession--two quarters of modest declines in GDP-- beginning in the fourth quarter.
The information available to date--which is still very incomplete--suggests that new housing construction will decline in the third quarter. This would be the second straight decline, following the 6.1% drop in Q2. We aren't expecting such a large fall in the third quarter, but it is nonetheless curious that housing investment--construction, in other words--is falling at a time when new home sales have risen sharply.
Looking back at the numbers over the past few weeks, it is pretty clear that the gap between the strong payroll reports and the activity data widened to a chasm in the first quarter. We now expect GDP growth of about zero--the latest Atlanta Fed estimate is +0.3% and the New York Fed's new model points to 0.8%--but payrolls rose at an annualized 1.9% rate.
Fed policymakers surprised no one with their May 1 statement, which acknowledged the surprisingly "solid " Q1 economic growth--at the time of the March 19-to-20 meeting, the Atlanta Fed's GDPNow model suggested Q1 growth would be just 0.6%--but stuck to its view that low inflation means the FOMC can be "patient".
The Atlanta Fed's GDP Now estimate for second quarter GDP growth will be revised today, in light of the data released over the past few days. We aren't expecting a big change from the June 24 estimate, 2.6%, because most of the recent data don't capture the most volatile components of growth, including inventories and government spending. The key driver of quarterly swings in the government component is state and local construction, but at this point we have data only for April; those numbers were weak.
The latest iteration of the Atlanta Fed's GDPNow model puts second quarter GDP growth at 4.1%. Assuming a modest upward revision to growth in the first quarter -- the data will be released Friday -- that would mean average growth of 2.5% in the first half, in line with our forecast for the year as a whole, and rather better than the 1.6% growth recorded in 2016.
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