The U.S. economy grew at its weakest quarterly pace in two years between the months of January and March, government data showed Thursday morning, as consumers and businesses alike showed new caution with their spending.
The nation’s gross domestic product expanded just 0.5 percent on an annualized pace. Businesses cut back on investments with a severity not seen since the financial crisis.
The relatively tepid growth indicates that the economy is still being held back by apprehension and caution — even as global chaos diminishes, employers continue hiring and the stock market recovers from early-year turmoil. Most analysts say that the United States faces little risk of recession, but the economy is stuck in second gear, providing a picture of contradictions for investors and policymakers.
Among those contradictions: Wages are beginning to rise, and cheaper gasoline is providing an extra influx of cash, but most Americans have cut back on consumption since the middle of last year.
Meanwhile, a dollar that has weakened slightly in recent months has helped to boost profits for America’s corporate giants — from airlines to tech companies. But those firms are holding off on investing in the basic goods they need, including computers, machinery and offices. Nonresidential investment — a gauge of that spending — plunged 5.9 percent in the first quarter, the sharpest decline since 2009.
In the latest quarter, the trade deficit was also a slight drag on growth.
Companies are likely trimming back in response to sluggish global demand. A few could also be pushing investments overseas, spurred by the United States' high corporate taxes. The cutbacks, too, are attributable to massive hemorrhaging in the oil and gas sector, where low prices have all but paralyzed investment. Investment in mining plunged 86 percent in the first quarter, the greatest decline on record, going back to 1958.
“The business investment is down, and again, it’s this uncertain environment,” said Dan North, a chief economist at Euler Hermes, a credit insurance company. He said the same uncertainty is holding back consumers: “They are thinking: Why am I going to buy a washing machine in this sort of crummy economy?”
After its meeting on Wednesday, the Federal Reserve provided a mixed review of the economy, saying in its statement that economic activity had slowed despite labor market improvement. Inflation has held below the Fed’s 2 percent target for more than three years.
Though the Fed had entered the year with the plan to raise interest rates several times, it has so far held off on any moves — a seeming response to overseas volatility, particularly in China, and to the conflicting signals about U.S. economic strength. Analysts say the Fed could still elect to raise interest rates at its next meeting in June.
Mainstream forecasts suggest the U.S. economy will speed up as the year goes along — a trend that also held in 2014 and 2015. The International Monetary Fund, in mid-April, projected that the U.S. economy would expand by 2.4 percent this year, slightly better than the pace of other advanced economies. But that projection has been nudged down twice over the last seven months, and some economists said Thursday that the second quarter could also be dreary.
“There’s no natural presumption here that you’ll get a bounce in the second quarter,” said Steve Blitz, a chief economist at ITG Investment Research. “We might, but it’s not a guarantee,” because both consumers and businesses would have to change their behavior.
Thursday’s data, released by the Commerce Department, is a preliminary reading and will be revised twice more over the coming months. The nation’s GDP — a broad measure of output — grew at a 1.4 percent pace in the last quarter of 2015. For all of 2015, the economy grew at a 2.4 percent pace, despite a weak first quarter that was largely attributed to a frigid winter in the Northeast.
Consumer spending accounts for about two-thirds of the U.S. economy, and some analysts said that Americans in the first quarter were overly cautious amid spiking volatility overseas and a swoon in the stock market. But others said that caution was shaped by closer-to-home factors: Rents are rising. And there’s incentive to plow more into savings, because retirement funds aren’t growing on their own with interest rates so low.
If there was a bright spot, in came in the housing sector, where real residential fixed investment — a measurement for building and remodeling — rose 14.8 percent during the quarter. In a post on the White House web site, Jason Furman, chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, said that the demand for homes was being driven by job growth and relatively low mortgage rates. Household formation was still relatively low compared with historical trends, he said, and had further room to grow.
Wages have also risen slightly, up 2.3 percent over the last year. That slightly outpaces the clip seen throughout much of the recovery. Even amid the sluggish GDP growth, hiring has remained rapid: Employers have expanded their payrolls by nearly 1.5 million over the last six months.