WASHINGTONThe U.S. economy headed into 2020 on a solid footing, with growth settling back to the roughly 2% pace that has prevailed during the decade-old economic expansion.Gross domestic productthe value of all goods and services produced across the economygrew 2.3% last year, after rising at a seasonally and inflation-adjusted annual rate of 2.1% in the fourth quarter, the Commerce Department said Thursday. Year-over-year growth of 2.3% was the slowest pace since 2016, but in line with the average pace that has marked the expansion that began in mid-2009.
The economy was buffeted last year by the U.S.-China trade dispute and a slowing global economy, but was buoyed by a strong domestic labor market that fueled consumer spending and optimism.
Many economists expect the U.S. economy to grow at about the same pace in 2020, given the recent trade truce between the U.S. and China, forecasts for a rebound in global growth, low interest rates and upbeat American consumers.
Despite the hit to business investment from the trade war, behind the scenes, we actually saw the consumer side looking pretty solid, said
Brian Coulton,
chief economist at Fitch Ratings.
The economys expansion last quarter reflected a boost from trade as exports increased and imports dropped sharply, amid slower U.S. household spending and higher tariffs on imports from China.
Consumer spending rose at a 1.8% annual rate in the fourth quarter of 2019 from a 3.2% pace the prior quarter, and business investment dropped for the third quarter in a row, while residential investment picked up.
Big picture, the headline growth was solid but masking some weakness in domestic demand, said Jeremy Schwartz, an economist at Credit Suisse, citing slowing consumer spending and trade volatility.
The Federal Reserve left its benchmark interest rate unchanged on Wednesday, maintaining its make-no-move posture, after cutting rates three times in the second half of 2019. The Fed expects moderate economic growth to continue, Fed Chairman
Jerome Powell
said Wednesday.
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Potential negatives for the economy remain on the horizon.
Boeing Co.halted production of its troubled 737 MAX aircraft this month, a blow to U.S. manufacturing. Slowing growth in China and a coronavirus outbreak that originated there could also pose a risk to the global economic pickup many analysts expect for this year.
U.S. stocks edged lower amid fears of a slowdown in global growth. Yields on 10-year U.S. Treasury notes also fell below yields on three-month Treasury bills on Thursday. This dynamic is known as an inverted yield curve, a condition that has preceded many recessions. It occurred at several points last year until the Fed cut short-term interest rates and started purchasing short-term Treasury bills.
Still, the U.S. is reaping the benefits of low unemployment and rising incomes. That is fueling high consumer confidence and continued, if slower, household spending.
MarkAnthoney Gildersleeve recently bought a new moped to commute to work. The 33-year-old said he feels really good about the economy because he has a good job as a mechanic in Washington, D.C. Im able to pay bills on time and enjoy my life, he said.
Businesses remained wary in the fourth quarter. A key measure of business spendingnonresidential fixed investment, reflecting spending on commercial construction, equipment and intellectual property products like softwaredropped for the third quarter in a row.
The case for an upside surprise to growth in 2020 relies heavily on renewed business investment in the wake of the Phase One trade deal between China and the U.S., said
Eric Winograd,
an economist at investment-management firm AllianceBernstein.
Companies sensitive to trade disputes say uncertainty over tariffs remains a worry.
The uncertainty of whats going to happen, its very difficult to plan the future, said Phil Marfuggi, chief executive of The Ambrolia Company Inc., which imports cheese largely from Italy.
The West Caldwell, N.J.-based company has put the brakes on hiring and executives travel spending because of the uncertainty. It also halted plans for a new facility for cutting, wrapping and grating cheese due to the U.S. move in October to impose 25% tariffs on food products, among other goods, from the European Union.
Two volatile categories, trade and inventories, had an outsize impact on fourth-quarter growth. Overall private-sector inventories subtracted 1.1 percentage point from the fourth quarters growth rate. A decline in retail inventories, notably at motor-vehicle dealers, came as the United Auto Workers union nationwide strike at
General Motors Co.ran through most of October.
Meantime, net exports added 1.48 percentage point to the quarters 2.1% growth rate, the largest contribution since the second quarter of 2009. Exports rose at a 1.4% annual rate and imports dropped at an 8.7% pace.
The current expansion became the longest on record in July and it is now midway through its 11th year. The average pace of growth hovered just above 2%, slower than the 2.9% rate during the 2001-2007 expansion and the 3.6% rate from early 1991-2001.
The $1.5 trillion tax cut passed by Congress in late 2017 was part of President Trumps plan to boost economic growth to the above-3% annual growth rate that marked previous robust expansions, but that outcome hasnt materialized.
Full-year growth fell slightly short of that level in 2018, immediately after the tax cut passed. The 2.3% year-over-year growth in 2019 was well below the 3.1% level that the White House projected.
The White House Council of Economic Advisers on Thursday said the global slowdown, trade, the Feds interest-rate policies, Boeings production issues and the GM strike were among factors that held back U.S. growth. It said the recently signed trade deal with China and the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement should reduce uncertainty, which, combined with growth in consumer spending and residential investment provide reason to expect that the economy has further room to expand in 2020.
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—Nick Timiraos contributed to this article.
Write to Harriet Torry at harriet.torry@wsj.com
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