The reason why the U.S. economy is so susceptible to dollar strength and other obstacles may be that the post-financial crisis recovery isn’t really what it’s cracked up to be.
That’s the emerging view from Wall Street consensus coupled with economic data that suggest the long-awaited V-shaped rebound has yet to take hold.
As the first-quarter weakness bleeds into the second quarter, corporate earnings are better than their much-downplayed expectations—when aren’t they?—but still weak. The willingness of consumers to spend their gas savings remains shaky, and one broad measure of economic strength is wobbling toward a recessionary indication.
So after years of waiting for the U.S. to take the global economic lead, what happened?
“We believe … the diagnosis that the US economy has healed from the 2008 trauma may be overstated or incorrect,” Citigroup economist William Lee said in a note to clients. “This may explain why expectations have been disappointed following the recent flood of apparent downward surprises regarding the growth outlook.” ( Tweet This )
Depending on which indicator you follow, first-quarter gross domestic product growth is trending from 0.1 percent (the Atlanta Federal Reserve’s GDPNow tracker) to 1.2 percent (the CNBC/Moody’s Analytics Rapid Update survey) to 1.6 percent (the latest FactSet estimate).
Whatever your pleasure, current expectations are falling well short of former hopes that the first quarter would be closer to 3 percent, which was where the estimate was as recently as the end of 2014.
The slowdown has come amid a dismal stretch of performance from many economic indicators. Bespoke Investment Group’s diffusion index measuring whether economic data beat or miss estimates, after hitting a 10-year high in August 2014, is near its 2009 low though still modestly positive.
“The thing to watch going forward for this indicator is whether or not it can hang on to positive territory. There have only been two other periods in the last 20 years where this indicator dipped into negative territory and both of those coincided with recessions,” Bespoke’s Paul Hickey wrote in a report.
Citi’s Lee puts much of the blame on U.S. dollar strength for the economic weakness. The greenback has surged more than 22 percent over the past year against a trade-weighted basket of its global competitors.
In total, Lee sees currency headwinds shaving as much as 1.25 percentage points off domestic growth, and more generally speaking believes the factor is not appreciated enough by economists and strategists trying to parse out what is ailing the U.S. this year.
Lee also said the current state of the job market is a problem. Employment growth “has been too slow,” he said, and concentrated in low-wage sectors to the point where workers in the 1970s were making more than those today when using inflation-adjusted figures.
“With so many low-wage jobs created, there may not be sufficient income growth to boost demand and GDP growth beyond the current tepid pace,” he wrote.
Still, most Wall Street pros remain optimistic. The consensus growth forecast remains at 3 percent for the full year, despite misgivings.
Providing voice to the dichotomy between hopes and results, Priya Misra, rates strategist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, noted in a report that “there is not much conclusive evidence” for why growth has been so slow, yet the firm’s economists “believe fundamentals of the economy are still strong.”
The team at Nomura Securities thinks once headwinds like weather and the West Coast port strike clear up, “the economy should start to gear up.” But the firm also believes: “The negative shocks from the stronger dollar and the decline in oil prices could be longer-lasting headwinds. On balance, we continue to expect the economy to pick up in 2015 but it may be more gradual than we initially anticipated.”