GDP Preview: Consumer Conundrum

GDP growth is expected to slow to 2.5% in the second quarter, according to consensus projections, after rising 2.7% during the first quarter.
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) -- Wall Street will get its first peek at second- quarter economic activity when the government unveils its advance gross domestic product figures Friday morning. And while most agree we'll probably continue seeing some economic growth in the second quarter, look for that pace of expansion to slow compared to recent quarters as consumers continued to struggle under the weight of a tough labor market.

The Commerce Department will issue its report at 8:30 a.m. EDT Friday. Though up for later revision, Wall Street economists, on average, are projecting a seasonally adjusted 2.5% annual growth rate, according to That would be only slightly off the annual pace of 2.7% posted in the first quarter, but it would continue to reflect a slowdown compared with the 5.6% jump registered in the final quarter of last year.

As 2009 came to a close, the economy went through a red-hot rebound from the recession's lows. GDP got a hefty lift thanks mostly to a slowdown in the massive, nationwide inventory liquidation, which highlighted the recession's depths, as managers instead worked to rebuild stock shelves.

But the inventory rebuild effort has been slowing, likely reining in final GDP tallies this time. Of late, the Wall Street drinking game of choice has been predicting the nature of whatever kind of slowdown is to come in the future. "Modest growth or double-dip in the second-half of the year," as the question goes.

According to Chris Low, chief economist with FTN Financial, the most notable phenomenon has been watching expectations deteriorate leading up to tomorrow's announcement. When the quarter began, Low said, many were looking for as much as 4% growth. But as more economic indicators came in across an array of fronts, the picture began looking more uncertain.

"Whatever the number is, the progression over the course of the quarter has been towards weakness," Low said, who's forecasting growth of 2.3%.

Pulling down results, the trade deficit continued to widen during that period --

growing to $42.3 billion in May -- as demand for U.S. goods overseas failed to keep pace with growing demand for foreign cars, pharmaceuticals and household goods at home.

An obstinate

housing market will probably be a modest drag on real GDP stats, economists say, taking residential investment metrics down with it. Government spending, particularly at the state and local levels, will probably do little to help final results. But business spending could act as an upside surprise in tomorrow's report, according to Low.

Still, most economists agree the biggest burden on second-quarter GDP will be retail sales and consumer spending, or the lack thereof. After getting off to a good start in April,

retail consumption stumbled to end the quarter, which doesn't bode well for real GDP because consumer spending accounts for as much as 70%.

"The biggest anchor is what's going on with the consumer," said Robert Dye, senior economist at PNC Financial Services, who's predicting second-quarter growth at 2.6%. "Consumer spending has been tepid. It hasn't been dragging, but certainly hasn't been leading the charge, and the high unemployment rate is certainly the anchor there."

To his point, disposable income is hard to come by for those mired in the nation's

9.5% unemployment rate. Early projections are that employers probably shed another 116,000 jobs from nonfarm payrolls this month.

Federal Reserve

Chairman Ben Bernanke expects moderate economic growth and some improvement on the labor front, but also noted some uncertainty. Meanwhile, corporations continued making some layoff announcements this week.


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hinted this week that pink slips would hit some in its defense segment, while

Stanley Black & Decker

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said it was slashing 80 positions at a Jackson, Tenn., distribution center. Another 120 layoffs hit

Winn-Dixie Stores



And even those with jobs and money to spend are, instead, putting their efforts into paying down debts and shoring up their household finances.

But because of its backward-looking nature, and with so many elements already baked in, market watchers say to look for Friday's GDP report to have a muted effect on the markets. Plus, so much of the focus of analysts, economists, and corporations during this earnings season has been on the slowdown in the second half of the year, which is expected to be more pronounced, rather than the second quarter alone. Of course, if tomorrow's final number is wildly above or below projections -- above 3% or below 2%, Dye says -- all bets are off.

--Written by Sung Moss in New York