5 Lessons from 3Q 2017

From global growth to changes in the labor market, these are the economic takeaways to know about the third quarter.

The US economy has enjoyed solid growth through the first three quarters of 2017, and the outlook for the rest of the year seems just as positive. Here’s a look back at major trends from the last quarter that may shape developments through the remainder of the year:

1. Growth Is Accelerating

Real global GDP growth is forecast to accelerate to 3.7 percent for 2017, up from 3.2 percent in 2016. Looking forward, forecasts are now calling for growth to reach 4 percent in 2018. This expansion is being led internationally by Asia’s emerging markets; combined with Europe and Japan getting back on their feet, there is now stronger demand for American exports.

Domestically, the corporate sector’s climbing profits have sparked a yearlong stock market rally, and the market’s price-earnings ratio has recovered to historically normal valuations. Rising portfolios have created $5.5 trillion in new household wealth, which is gradually translating into stronger consumer spending. The market’s rally could bump consumer spending by as much as 2 percent in the coming year as households feel more comfortable opening up their pocketbooks again.

2. The Energy Sector Is Making a Comeback

As crude oil rises above $50 per barrel, the US energy sector is coming back to life. The US Energy Information Administration recorded domestic oil production at 9,238 barrels per day in July of this year, bringing it just shy of its peak in 2014, when oil was more than $100 per barrel. While total drilling activity remains well short of its mid-decade record highs, oil prices have clearly pushed past the break-even point for new exploration across American shale fields. Drilling rig counts are currently climbing at a pace reminiscent of the shale boom’s early years.

The sector should be supported by firming prices as global demand rises in the coming years. A record 92 million motor vehicles were sold globally last year, with 27 million going to China—almost double the country’s sales pace of the previous year.

For the past two years, American households have benefited from falling fuel prices, though many were slow to act on the windfall they received. Now, the average household savings rate has dropped below where it stood in 2014—a sign that consumers are starting to spend the money freed up by price relief at the pump.

3. Natural Disasters Had a Limited Impact on the Economy

This fall’s devastating hurricanes and wildfires caused relatively minor economic dislocations. While some 308,000 people were laid off following the hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, the total number of people drawing unemployment benefits actually fell throughout the hurricane season. This is a sign that workers are either rapidly returning to their jobs, or they are finding new employment opportunities in the recovery effort.

Much of the storms’ economic damage—to the services sector, for example—can’t be recovered, but postponed sales of goods are starting to return. Since loss of property isn’t calculated in GDP, we’ll see instead the increase in sales from replacement and rebuilding efforts.

4. A Maturing Labor Market Leads to Competition for Talent

As the labor market tightens, rapid job creation is starting to give way to stronger wage growth. Real hourly wages are outpacing inflation, and employers will soon have to compete for a dwindling supply of workers as the unemployment rate falls back to levels consistent with full employment.

Research shows that wage growth has been slowed in recent years by the rise of highly efficient “superstar firms,” or companies using technology to save money on labor without sacrificing customer experience. But that drag should begin to fade as the market realigns and other companies learn how to compete with the superstar firms, which also creates competition for talent between new dominant players.

5. The Federal Reserve Is Gradually Pursuing Normalization

With no sign of imbalances in the economy, the Fed has been able to take a steady approach to normalizing monetary policy. The peaks of past business cycles were accompanied by asset distortions and inflation, but the current situation is remarkably balanced—asset values are in alignment with historic trends, and inflation has been very slow to emerge, even as aggregate demand returns to full strength.

This has allowed the Fed to work gradually. Short-term interest rates are projected to return to their 3 percent equilibrium over the next two years, and the Fed is expected to unwind its balance sheet over the coming four years. The slow pace of normalization implies that accommodative monetary conditions and attractive interest rates will likely remain in place as the business cycle approaches its peak.