What a dizzying week for figuring out where the economy is headed. For every rosy indicator, another suggested hard times around the corner.
Americans are spending at a good clip: Retail sales for July were the strongest since March. But they are worried about the future: Consumer sentiment fell well below estimates.
Productivity — our output per hour worked — climbed at a healthy rate. But manufacturing took another hit thanks to trade disputes and a strong U.S. dollar.
Home building dropped for a third straight month. At the same time, permits jumped to a seven-month high, an indication that building could pick up again soon.
Closer to home, Florida posted another strong jobs report on Friday. A day earlier, economists said the state should expect $867 million less in revenue over the next two years, due in part to a coming economic slowdown.
What to make of it all? Let’s start with the good news.
Consumer spending makes up a big chunk of the U.S. economy. Americans appear willing to keep buying washing machines, going out for craft beers and sending their kids to summer camp. Low oil prices, interest rates and inflation should help keep the spending spigot open, at least in the short term.
Consumer debt, while high by some measures, remains manageable. In fact, debt per person is down more than 18 percent from the peak in 2008. And while consumer sentiment took a hit this week, it remains above average, a good indication people will continue to spend.
The boost in productivity from April to June comes after an even bigger jump in the previous three months. The gains matter because sluggish productivity has suppressed wages and curtailed the decade-long economic expansion.
The housing news was mixed, but for the most part we haven’t overbought or overbuilt like in the run up to the Great Recession when banks handed out mortgages to nearly anyone with a pulse. That puts us on much more solid ground, no matter what comes next.
It also helps that Congress and President Donald Trump inked a budget agreement that extends beyond next year’s elections, preventing a disruptive and prolonged government shutdown that could have damaged the economy.
“At face value, the U.S. economy remains on a solid path,” said Karl Kuykendall, principal economist at IHS Markit.
But there are some risks. Two of the most pressing are a global economic slowdown and the trade showdown with China.
Several of the world’s largest economies including Germany and Brazil are teetering toward a recession. Italy is already there. The United Kingdom, still struggling with how to leave the European Union, could join them if Brexit goes further awry.
Florida has already felt the impact, Kuykendall said. The number of foreign tourists has fallen, though the drop is offset by an increase in visitors from other states. There are also indications that foreigners are buying fewer homes, especially in the Miami area.
As for trade tensions, Trump announced this week that he would delay some tariffs on Chinese goods until later this year. But he has changed his mind before. Even if he sticks to his plan, the tit-for-tat between the United States and China has created a lot of uncertainty.
U.S. manufacturers are caught in the middle. While not nearly as big as the service sector, manufacturing is large enough and volatile enough to have an outsized influence on how fast (or slow) the economy grows.
“The way global economic weakness will most impact the U.S. is primarily through our manufacturing sector,” said Wells Fargo senior economist Mark Vitner. “That’s the indicator to keep an eye on.”
Bottom line: The U.S. economy is taking some hits but remains steady. Start to worry if manufacturing plunges or consumers get spooked and stop spending.
Contact Graham Brink at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @GrahamBrink.