Recession talk fading at end of year
Remember back in August when economists and investors were gnashing their teeth about a looming recession?
For the last four months, economic data have mostly improved, underscored by the boffo November jobs report. Job growth has averaged 180,000 per month thus far in 2019, down from the average monthly gain of 223,000 in 2018, but still strong for the 11th year of an expansion.
The unemployment rate edged down to match a 50-year low of 3.5%. The jobless rate has remained at or below 4% for 21 straight months, the longest such stretch since the 1960s. The broader rate slid to 6.9%, matching a post cycle low in August — the lowest reading since December 2000.
Average hourly wages were up 3.1% from a year ago, below the peak hit last February. Still, worker pay is more than a full percentage point ahead of the overall inflation rate, which may explain why many consumers say they are feeling jolly this holiday season.
The Federal Reserve underscored the overall improvement in the economy during its final policy meeting of the year. After cutting interest rates by a quarter of a percentage point three times in the second half of 2019, the central bankers decided to put interest rate policy on hold, potentially for a while. In a unanimous decision, officials kept the current level of rates steady, believing that 1.5 to 1.75% is the right range to maintain a balanced economy.
The Fed also noted that consumers have been doing the heavy lifting this year, with household spending rising at a strong pace, but also underscored that business investments and exports remain weak.
Looking ahead, the Fed sees moderate growth and low unemployment. As a result, they anticipate no interest rate moves in 2020 and just one hike in each of the subsequent two years.
That’s rough news for savers, who just a year ago were finally seeing interest rates creep up in their savings and money market accounts. Conversely, borrowers are likely to see low costs for short-term loans, like credit cards, autos and some adjustable rate mortgages. For stock investors, an accommodative Fed has put the cherry on the top of strong 2019 performance.
Adding to the December cheer was a trade truce of sorts. After 19 months of tit-for-tat measures and two days before the U.S. was set to impose another round of tariffs, the world’s two largest economies agreed upon a partial trade agreement. The U.S. agreed to hold off on the imposition of 15% tariffs on $156 billion worth of Chinese goods.
In exchange, U.S. officials said that China would increase purchases of American food, energy, manufactured goods and services by a total of $200 billion over the next two years, including a commitment to increase agricultural product purchases from $8 billion to $40 billion. The problem is that Beijing has not acknowledged those numbers, which has led some analysts to be a bit more skeptical about some of the larger outstanding structural issues, like intellectual property and technology transfer.
Although the deal is not really done, the trade war moving from a boil to a simmer has helped improve economic sentiment and certainly made the fears of a recession from just four months before, seem like a distant memory.
Jill Schlesinger, CFP, is a CBS News business analyst. A former options trader and CIO of an investment advisory firm, she welcomes comments and questions at [email protected]lonmoney.com. Check her website at www.jillonmoney.com.