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U.S. Economy Expands 2.1 Percent in 4th Quarter

The U.S. economy expanded at an annualized rate of 2.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2019, despite investment in structures declining at an annualized rate of 10.1 percent, according to an Associated Builders and Contractors analysis of data released Jan. 30 by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Investment in structures contracted for three consecutive quarters and declined 4.4 percent during 2019.


In 2019, real GDP expanded by 2.3 percent, which was slower than the 2.9 percent rate of growth observed in 2018. Investment in structures contracted 4.4 percent in 2019 after expanding by 4.1 percent in 2018 (see table below left).


“Last year will be remembered as decent but unspectacular for the U.S. economy,” said ABC Chief Economist Anirban Basu. “Strong consumer spending, historically low unemployment, surging asset prices and healthy backlog levels, according to ABC’s Construction Backlog Indicator, were offset by soft business investment, flattening levels of nonresidential construction and soaring national debt. In addition, key segments of the economy, including manufacturing and agriculture, were particularly weak.


“But 2019 tells us little about 2020 dynamics,” said Basu. “Coming into last year, many expected interest rates and the general cost of capital to rise. Instead, interest rates dipped, creating an improved environment for purchasers of construction services. Last year was also shrouded by fears of worsening trade wars, but with the ratification of the USMCA and the attainment of a first phase trade deal with China, the level of uncertainty has abated. Through the first month of 2020, this has translated into rising stock prices, which should induce greater business investment.


“This year’s presidential election may cause some purchasers of construction services to adopt a wait-and-see attitude,” said Basu. “Contractors are currently upbeat about their prospects over the next two quarters, according to ABC’s Construction Confidence Index. However, given contracting levels of investment in structures, it is unclear if that will persist through the end of 2020.”

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