Impact of Tax Reform (U.S. Outlook February 2018)

• One year into Donald Trump’s presidency, the economy has maintained solid growth momentum
in what has so far already been the country’s third-longest economic expansion on record. In
a bid to better assess what 2018 holds for the U.S. economy, we polled our global network of
analysts. Of the sample of economists from international and local economic institutions we

contacted, 95 answered the survey. This special report includes the highlights from our poll.

• The analysts surveyed are broadly in agreement regarding the robustness of the economy’s
fundamentals, and they largely see 2018 growth either accelerating or remaining steady at last
year’s rate of expansion. They expect the recently approved tax rewrite and a weaker dollar to

shore up business investment, but many are skeptical on the long-term benefits of the tax cuts.

• The majority of the economists surveyed expect stronger inflation and a tight labor market to
warrant three interest rate hikes this year. On trade, analysts believe NAFTA will be preserved
with only minor changes, while most respondents see no meaningful trade dispute taking
place with China. Finally, analysts are split on Democrats’ chances at taking back the House of
Representatives in this year’s November midterm elections.

Healthy GDP data for the fourth quarter rounded off a strong year of growth in the U.S. economy. Household spending rose in Q4 at a solid rate on continued job growth, increased wages and high stock prices, while fixed investment benefitted from sky-high business sentiment and reconstruction efforts following weather-related disruptions in Q3. The GDP report came on top of a string of upbeat data releases suggesting momentum likely carried over into 2018. Survey-based manufacturing data for December and January showed soaring order books, while initial jobless claims continued to decline up to the week ending on 20 January, an early indication that employment growth remained resilient at the start of the year. Despite the rosy economic picture, political wrangling dominated headlines in recent weeks. Following a brief shutdown, Congress struck a deal on 22 January to reopen the federal government through 8 February but failed to resolve the underlying issues that caused the shutdown, including an agreement on DACA. An accommodative fiscal stance should lift consumer spending and nonresidential investment this year, while an exceedingly tight labor market, strong momentum in the housing sector and upbeat stock prices will continue to buttress economic activity. FocusEconomics panelists see growth of 2.6% in 2018, which is up 0.1 percentage points from last month’s estimate. In 2019, growth is seen moderating to 2.1%.

Inflation eased to 2.1% in December from 2.2% in November. That said, core inflation inched up to 1.8%, reinforcing market expectations of an interest rate hike at the Fed’s March monetary policy meeting. Members of the FOMC project three interest rate increases in 2018 as employment continues to rise and inflationary pressures mount. FocusEconomics panelists see inflation averaging 2.2% in both 2018 and 2019.

Retail sales finished the year on a strong note, growing 0.4% from the previous month in December and falling just short of market expectations of a 0.5% month-on-month increase. December’s print came in below the upwardly revised 0.9% expansion recorded in the previous month. Although December’s figure marked the lowest rate since August, it suggests sustained robustness in private consumption growth in the fourth quarter and showcases the overall health of the U.S. economy. Strong December sales were led by a very sturdy performance in non-store retailers, a component dominated by e-commerce, which saw sales jump 1.2% month-on-month in December. Furniture stores and building materials retailers also performed above average, with monthly sales growing 0.6% and 1.2%, respectively. Vehicle sales increased modestly by 0.2% in December, whereas gasoline sales remained steady from the previous month. Meanwhile, miscellaneous store retailers logged a notable 2.9% mom dip in sales, while clothing stores and electronics and appliances stores recorded smaller sales contractions in December. In annual terms, growth in retail sales moderated to 5.4% in December from an upwardly revised multi-year high of 6.0% recorded in the previous month. Annual average retail sales growth ticked up to 4.6% in December from 4.5% in October, marking the highest print in nearly five years. 

Whereas strong sales numbers point to a marked contribution from consumers to GDP in the last quarter of the year, it also points toward potential overheating and pro-inflationary risks in the U.S. economy, which could lead to rate hikes by the Federal Reserve as early as the first quarter of 2018. FocusEconomics Consensus Forecast panelists expect private consumption to grow 2.6% in 2018, which is up 0.2 percentage points from last month’s forecast. For 2019, the panel sees private consumption increasing 2.2%.

Monetary Analysis
Core consumer prices, which exclude volatile items including food and energy prices, rose 0.3% from the previous month in December. This came above market expectations of a 0.2% increase and followed the timid 0.1% month-on- month rise recorded in November. The print was largely driven by strong price increases for used cars and trucks, housing costs and medical care. These dynamics led core inflation to inch up to 1.8% in December from 1.7% in November. The lack of meaningful inflationary pressures, despite robust economic growth and an exceedingly tight labor market, has been at the forefront of the debate among Federal Reserve officials. In this sense, December’s stronger-than expected core inflation results are likely to reinforce market expectations of an interest rate hike at the Fed’s March monetary policy meeting. However, any additional hikes this year—the Fed’s “dot plot” currently shows three interest rate increases in 2018—will remain largely dependent on the evolution of core prices. FocusEconomics Consensus Forecast participants expect inflation to average 2.2% in 2018, which is up 0.1 percentage points from last month’s forecast. For 2019, the panel also expects inflation to average 2.2%.