What Friday's report on the gross domestic product tells you is simple: We have the U.S. economy the Federal Reservehas been expecting after all. That's why interest rates are increasingly likely to rise before Fall.
The economy grew at a 0.8% annual rate in the first quarter rather than the 0.5% clip first estimated last month, the Commerce Department reported Friday. While that sounds like growth was cut in half from the 2.4% pace of the last two years, the pros say it reflects something different -- a dry, methodological debate over whether the government's method of seasonally adjusting its estimates manages to underestimate first-quarter growth every year.
Anything at or above 0.8% means the economy is basically what the Fed was expecting when it guided the markets toward expecting a gradual path of increases in the Federal funds rate in 2016, said Dean Maki, chief economist at Point 72 Asset Management, the family office of ex-SAC Capital Advisors chief Steven A. Cohen.
If the economists are right, this means second-quarter growth will be 3% or better, as the other side of the error in seasonal adjustment reveals itself. The result will average out to an annual rate around 2%, and the economy will be back into its 2% to 2.5% range for the year, Cohen and LPL Financial economic strategist John Canally agreed.
"People average the first two quarters, because the [measurement issue] is well known," Canally said.
If the Fed gets the economy it expected, it's likely to deliver rate hikes on the schedule the market expected after the central bank raised the Fed funds rate in December for the first time in nearly a decade.
So expect a rate hike in July or September -- the same choice the futures market is now betting on. Futures prices point to a 54% chance of a hike by July and at least 62% by September. But a hike in June is only 24% likely because the Fed will wait to see the results of Britain's referendum on whether to leave the Eurozone, the better to avoid raising rates right before an external event that pumps up the dollar and hurts exports, Canally said.
The Fed's move in December, quickly followed by a run of bad data from China, helped drive U.S. stocks down by more than 10% - a move Janet Yellen & Co. will clearly try to avoid repeating.
"I don't think this number is critical to the Fed," Maki said. "More important will be whether there's continued solid job growth in May."
In Friday's report, the government said consumer spending grew 1.9%, the same as in last month's estimate. Private investment fell at a 2.6% clip, versus an initial estimate of -3.5%, as investment in housing grew at a stunning 17.1% rate but was offset by a 6.2% annualized plunge in business investment in structures that reflects the oil bust. The business-structures number was still nowhere near as bad as the 10.7% drop in last month's estimate.
Government spending grew at a 1.2% rate, and the nation's trade deficit reduced growth by a quarter of a percentage point, compared with the 0.34 percentage-point initial estimate. Exports were hurt by the wobbles in China's economy, whose most-notable U.S. casualty was Apple's (AAPL) - Get Report profits for the quarter that ended March 31.
The real question now is, what about the second quarter? On that note, the news has been relatively good recently.
The most unusual number of the week was the leap in pending sales of existing homes, the biggest in 10 years, Maki said. That's good for a raft of companies that sell furniture, home improvements and other services. The strength in housing has already been helping Home Depot (HD) - Get Report and Lowe's (LOW) - Get Report , while furniture makers and retailers including Williams-Sonoma (WSM) - Get Report (owner of Pottery Barn), La-Z-Boy (LZB) - Get Report and Bassett Furniture (BSET) - Get Report are all trading well off their 52-week highs.
New home sales are also rebounding, and have some room to run -- unlike existing home sales, which are already at or near levels that would have been considered strong any time before the 2003-2006 housing boom that ended in 2008's subprime mortgage disaster. Stocks like Pulte Group PHM, Toll Bros. TOL and D.R. Horton are all still off their highs even as the data improves.
Stocks tend to gain, but not very much, when the Fed is tightening, says Standard & Poor's Capital IQ strategist Sam Stovall. Since World War II, the market has risen an average of 4.5% in the year after the Fed began cycles of interest rate increases.
The market has already claimed a little bit more than half of that increase. What it means for your money is the economy is reasonably healthy, but the market knows it and has priced a lot of it in. A new run of positive (or negative) data will be needed to take stocks to a meaningfully different place.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.