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GDP growth in the U.S. was sluggish last quarter

Sabri Ben-Achour Apr 27, 2023
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Consumers are still buying things, but "inflation wears you down," warns Morning Consult's John Leer. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

GDP growth in the U.S. was sluggish last quarter

Sabri Ben-Achour Apr 27, 2023
Heard on:
Consumers are still buying things, but "inflation wears you down," warns Morning Consult's John Leer. Spencer Platt/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
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Gross domestic product in the U.S. grew by 1.1% in the first quarter. That’s slower than the previous quarter’s 2.6%, which was slower than the quarter before that. You might see a trend there.

There were some major things holding the economy back last quarter. 

“It was really business investment that wound up being a bigger drag, as well as inventory numbers,” said Marvin Loh, senior global macro strategist at State Street Global Markets. 

Businesses were not in the mood to invest a lot this past quarter — not in equipment and not in filling up their inventory.

“If you don’t think the economy’s going to be particularly strong going forward, it doesn’t make sense to invest in inventories and productive capacity right now,” said John Leer, chief economist at Morning Consult.

Plus, higher interest rates have made it more expensive to take out loans to buy some big piece of equipment or other, and banks have been less willing to make big loans.

New housing construction is also down, which makes for more dead weight. Yet, despite all of this, the economy still grew 1.1%. 

“The big driver for Q1 was consumption growth,” said Jonathan Pingle, chief U.S. economist at UBS.

You and me and everyone else kept buying stuff — we spent more on cars, health care, eating out and hotels. Retirees received cost-of-living adjustments. And all that’s kept the economy growing. But there is a limit to just how much consumers can keep saving the day. 

“Inflation wears you down,” Leer said. Inflation is making consumers less willing and able to spend like they used to. “And we saw this early on with low- and middle-income Americans, and it has worked its way up the income ladder,” he said.

Inflation is making even higher-income Americans walk away from big-ticket purchases, Morning Consult surveys show.

If you look at the trend in demand the past couple of quarters, “that, to me, looks like an economy that is slowing down,” said Pingle at UBS.

Pingle predicts a recession will hit before the year’s out. But maybe we won’t

“The slowdown we are seeing doesn’t necessarily mean we are heading for recession,” said Ben Herzon, a senior U.S. economist with S&P Global Market Intelligence, which predicts GDP growth will shrink to just 0.4% by June. “It does mean we are heading for a period of slow growth.”

There’s a lot that can mess with that prediction — debt ceiling drama, inflation readings, the banking system. The economy’s entering a tenuous place, where things could go either way.

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