US economy slows on trade gap; business spending rises


US economic growth slowed sharply in the fourth quarter as a plunge in shipments of soybeans weighed on exports, but steady consumer spending and rising business investment pointed to sustained strength in domestic demand.

Gross domestic product increased at a 1.9 percent annual rate, the Commerce Department said on Friday in its first estimate of fourth-quarter GDP. The economy grew at a 3.5 percent annual rate in the third quarter.

The slowdown masked a surge in home building spending and a rebound in business investment on equipment after four straight quarterly declines.

The economy expanded 1.6 percent for all of 2016, the worst performance since 2011, as it struggled with weak oil prices, a strong dollar and efforts by businesses to reduce a large inventory overhang.

US President Donald Trump vowed during last year’s election campaign to deliver 4 percent annual GDP growth, largely on the back of a plan to cut taxes, reduce regulations and increase infrastructure spending.

“The details of the report were quite sound. The US economic expansion got its mojo back and the momentum appears to be carrying over into 2017,” said Scott Anderson, chief economist at Bank of the West in San Francisco.

A measure of private domestic demand increased at a 2.8 percent rate last quarter. Economic growth in the third quarter was driven in part by an outsized jump in soybean exports.

Excluding soybeans, GDP increased at about a 2.7 percent rate in both the third and fourth quarters, according to analysts. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast GDP rising at a 2.2 percent rate in the fourth quarter.

In the first half of 2016, weak corporate profits because of cheaper oil and the robust dollar undercut business spending. The inventory correction resulted in companies placing fewer orders with manufacturers. The economy grew 2.6 percent in 2015.

With oil prices rising and global demand picking up, the economy appears set for continued expansion. A labor market at or near full employment also is starting to lift wages and is supporting consumer spending.

Although Trump has offered little detail on his economic policy, his promises have been embraced by consumers, businesses and investors. Consumer and business confidence have soared, while the US stock market has rallied to record highs.

A separate report on Friday showed consumer sentiment hitting a 13-year high in January.

“While the size and the timing of the tax cut, infrastructure spending and regulatory rollback are uncertain, economic growth could double during the second half of the year,” said Sung Won Sohn, an economics professor at California State University Channel Islands in Camarillo.

But uncertainty over the Trump administration’s trade policy and sustained dollar strength pose a risk to the economy.

In the fourth quarter, exports fell at a 4.3 percent rate, reversing the 10 percent increase notched in the third quarter. The fourth-quarter drop in exports was the biggest since the first quarter of 2015.