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What's Ahead? IMF Predicts Slow but Steady U.S. Comeback

Consumer confidence in the United States sank to its lowest level in nine months -- just in time to adversely affect retail sales for the 2013 holiday season. The overall index on consumer sentiment fell to 75.2 in early October from 77.5 in September, according to a survey conducted by Thomson Reuters and the University of Michigan.

One key reason for the decline: The government's 16-day shutdown. However, there may be more to the story than just the political impasse, because this is the third straight month that the survey has reported deterioration in consumer sentiment.

Man on rock outside watching sunset

Labor Market Trends

IMF reports that the U.S. unemployment rate peaked at about 10 percent in 2009. In August 2013, domestic unemployment was down to just 7.3 percent. Prior to the Great Recession, domestic unemployment was just 4.6 percent in 2006 and 2007, however.

How We Compare

Table 1 below shows that U.S. unemployment is currently -- and projected to be -- close to the average unemployment rate for all advanced economies.

Countries with lower unemployment than the United States include Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Switzerland and Norway. Advanced countries with the highest projected unemployment rates include Spain, Greece, Cyprus and Portugal.

The IMF projects U.S. employment growth to outpace the global average, however. U.S. employment is expected to grow 1.1 percent in 2013 and 1.4 percent in 2014. Employment growth rates for all advanced economies (combined) are below 1 percent in 2013 and 2014.

Southern European employment rates are expected to continue falling in 2013 and 2014, according to the IMF.

Table 1: Projected 2013 Unemployment Rates in Select Advanced Economies



Hong Kong3.2%
United States7.6%
All Advanced Economies8.1%

Source: IMF 2013 World Economic Outlook, Table B1, Advanced Economies: Unemployment, Employment and Real GDP per Capita

Glimmers of Hope

On a more positive note, the latest consumer sentiment survey revealed that Americans are fairly optimistic about income and inflation, resulting in a modest uptick in car and home sales.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) also released its October 2013World Economic Outlook, which reported that the United States is slowly recovering from the Great Recession. Reasons for our slow but steady rebound include strong consumer demand, an improving housing market and higher household net worth in 2013.

"The U.S. economy remains at the center of events," according to IMF. Growth in U.S. real gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was 2.0 percent in 2012, outpacing the GDP growth rates for many other advanced economies, including Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Japan, Canada and the UK.

Our growth is expected to continue to outpace other advanced economies, except Japan, in 2013 and 2014. The IMF expects Japanese growth to stall in 2014 as the government tightens its fiscal policy, however.

Threats to Domestic Growth

IMF predicts U.S. growth will average 1.25 percent in 2013 and 2.5 percent in 2014. But these forecasts were predicated on a timely resolution of the government shutdown (which was ongoing when IMF released its outlook), minimal changes to public discretionary spending, and a long-term increase in the debt ceiling.

The October debt deal actually didn't resolve anything. It's a temporary patch that reopens the government until January 15 and lifts the debt ceiling until February 15. The deal also set a December 13 deadline for a Congressional budget resolution committee to work out a final budget outline.

The IMF warns that if Congress cuts back significantly on the federal budget or the government defaults on its debts early next year, it could "seriously damage the global economy." Ongoing political polarization, tighter financing conditions and possible tax increases also threaten to lower domestic growth forecasts.

The "Beige Book"

The Federal Reserve echoed these concerns in its Beige Book report* released the same day as Congress struck its debt deal. The fear of reliving the government shutdown and debt crisis in early 2014 could dampen future consumer spending, especially during the holiday shopping season.

Here are some Beige Book highlights from the most recent reporting period:

  • Consumer spending continued to increase overall.

  • Activity in the travel and tourism sector expanded in most areas with Atlanta, Boston and New York areas being particularly upbeat.

  • Demand for non-financial services rose overall. For example, demand for staffing services increased in the New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Minneapolis areas. In contrast, staffing service activity was down slightly in the Chicago and Dallas regions. Demand for technology services increased in Kansas City and San Francisco.

  • Manufacturing activity expanded modestly. For example, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Minneapolis experienced faster growth, while New York, Richmond, and Chicago saw growth weaken. The automotive and aerospace industries continued to be a source of strength in a number of regions. Demand for fabricated metals was mixed. Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco reported steady increases in the demand for steel. However, Cleveland, Chicago, and Atlanta indicated that much of the higher demand was being met by imports.

  • Residential construction continued to increase at a moderate pace.

  • There were mixed reports on agriculture, with excess precipitation and drought having an impact on the sector.

  • Energy and mining activity expanded or maintained high levels, with the exception of the coal industry in the eastern half of the nation.

  • Auto sales continued to be strong, particularly in the New York area where they were said to be increasingly robust. In contrast, Chicago, Kansas City, and Dallas indicated slower growth in auto sales in September.

  • Growth in retail sales was steady in most areas, but picked up some in Cleveland and Richmond and slowed in Chicago, Kansas City, and Dallas.

  • Retailers generally remained optimistic about the holiday shopping season, with contacts in Philadelphia and Chicago expecting this year's holiday sales to be about equal to last year's despite the traditional holiday period being six days shorter this year. In addition, Dallas noted strength in retail imports in advance of the holiday season, with growth stronger than a year ago.

Global Outlook

Across the globe, IMF found that many other advanced economies -- such as Canada and Japan -- are modestly growing. Several Eurozone nations are also showing signs of recovery, but some southern European nations -- such as Spain, Greece and Portugal -- are "still struggling."

Growth in emerging markets -- such as Mexico, India and China -- remains higher than growth in advanced markets. But emerging market growth rates have fallen below their elevated levels in recent years, due to cyclical factors and decreases in potential output growth. Many emerging nations experienced a bigger drop in GDP growth than IMF had previously predicted.

In 2010, the average growth in real GDP for emerging countries was 7.5 percent. It's fallen to just 4.9 percent in 2012 -- and is expected to be just 4.5 percent in 2013 and 5.1 percent in 2014.

Are You Ready for a Growth Spurt?

Political and demographic changes are reshaping the global economy. Worldwide supply and demand in the future will be affected by growth in:

  • Life expectancies;
  • The emerging-market middle class;
  • Wealth disparities; and
  • Water, food and energy consumption.

U.S. businesses that stay on top of these trends and recognize emergent opportunities and threats will be positioned to prosper as the domestic economy slowly builds steam.

* The Beige Book is officially known as the "Summary of Commentary on Current Economic Conditions by Federal Reserve District." Published eight times a year, the report details information on current economic conditions in each Federal Reserve Bank District through reports from bank and branch directors and interviews with key business contacts, economists, market experts, and other sources.