The Weekly Bottom Line

Our summary of recent economic events and what to expect in the weeks ahead

Date Published: January 17th, 2020

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Highlights

  • Data releases over the week reinforce the main themes in the U.S. economy: solid consumption, housing market recovery, faltering business investment and soft inflation.
  • The phase one trade deal was formally signed, committing China to increase its imports of U.S. goods and services to $200 billion more than the 2017 level. Reaching this target will be a difficult task.
  • While the agreement gives short-term relief, this is only the first phase. The likely difficulty in implementing the current accord combined with the more-difficult issues still to be discussed, mean that trade uncertainty is likely to continue to be a factor in the outlook. 

Phase One Complete, But Can It Hold?

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Chart 1: Housing Starts Reaches Its Highest Level in 13 Years

It’s only the third week of 2020, and its already proving to be a busy year. This week was a whirlwind, with oodles of data releases and, of course, the signing of the long-awaited phase one trade deal. 

From a data perspective, 2019 ended with more of the same for the U.S. economy. Consumption likely remained solid in the fourth quarter, as evidenced by the healthy rise in retail sales in December. Retail sales advanced by 0.3% month-on-month, and November’s figure was also revised higher. There were gains in nearly every category, underlining the robust nature of the increase.

The housing market also continued its good run, with housing starts surging last month. Construction in both singles and multifamily units picked up in December, sending the overall level to its highest point in 13 years (Chart 1). Taking together, housing data for the fourth quarter implies that residential investment is on track to continue its upward climb heading into 2020.

On the flipside, we saw the NFIB’s small business optimism index move in the other direction in December. The decline is likely attributable to heightened policy uncertainty, a theme that has plagued businesses, big and small, throughout 2019 (see report). 
Chart 2: Exports to China Must Average 10% Growth Each Quarter to Hit Deal Target

On the whole, we expect the U.S. economy to have ended 2019 on solid footing. The final Beige Book of the year supported this narrative, showing a decent rise in economic activity and tight labor markets across Federal Reserve districts.

Despite the increasing pressure on economic capacity, inflation remains stubbornly soft. December’s core consumer price index, which strips out the impact of energy and food prices, remained at 2.3% year-over-year, unchanged since October. On an annual basis, core CPI inflation was only a tick higher in 2019 at 2.2%. Looking ahead, price pressures may continue to be subdued especially with the U.S.-China phase one trade deal effectively cutting the existing tariff rate, while also removing the threat of additional tariffs at least for the time being.

This takes us to the big headline for the week, the U.S.-China phase one trade deal. On the face of it, the agreement could be a positive for U.S. growth as it commits China to purchasing an additional $200 billion worth of U.S. goods and services over the next two years (see commentary). But the big question is: can China adequately ramp up its imports to reach this target? The answer is probably not. Quarterly import growth would have to average above 10% for every quarter from now until the fourth quarter of 2021 to reach this goal (Chart 2). 

The agreement also included a dispute mechanism. In the event China doesn’t meet its import commitments, the U.S. can resort back to imposing tariffs and if China responds, the deal would be nullified. Indeed, the agreement gives short-term relief, but its sustainability is still an open question.

Sri Thanabalasingam, Economist | 416-413-3117

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