Plus: U.S. Economy Expands and Durable Goods on an Upswing, but Jobless Claims Rise.
U.S. Economy Expands in Q4
The United States economy picked up some steam in the final three months of 2011, largely due to increases in business inventories and consumer spending, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce‘s preliminary data last week. With the nation’s fourth-quarter economic output expanding at an annualized rate of 2.8 percent, the increase in gross domestic product (GDP) was the fastest in a year and a half.
Inventory spending surged to an estimated $56 billion after a $2 billion decline in the third quarter, while consumer spending rose 2 percent, up from 1.7 percent in the third quarter. Government spending fell at all levels — federal, state and local — last quarter, providing a notable drag on total GDP. Meanwhile, exports climbed 4.7 percent and imports rose 4.4 percent.
“Many of the bigger American companies have reported strong profits in recent months, too,” the New York Times reports. “Companies like General Electric and Lockheed Martin closed the year with record order backlogs, a sign that, at least for some businesses, demand is so strong that they cannot produce quickly enough.”
For 2011 as a whole, GDP rose by 1.7 percent, raising the level of real GDP 0.7 percent above where it was at the start of the recession in Q4 2007.
Durable Goods Orders Increase in December
New orders for U.S. durable goods increased 3 percent in December, following a 4.3 percent rise in November, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Commerce last week. Excluding the often-volatile transportation category, news orders actually rose 2.1 percent. Excluding defense goods, new orders climbed 3.5 percent.
The overall value of durable goods orders last month rose by $6.2 billion to a total of $214.5 billion, marking the third consecutive month of growth. The largest gains were in transportation equipment, which climbed 5.5 percent. Another key increase was in orders for non-defense capital goods (excluding aircraft), which increased 2.9 percent, following decreases of 1.2 percent in November and 0.9 percent in October. The gain suggests that U.S. companies may be more eager to begin spending and investing accumulated funds.
“Economists pay close attention to so-called core capital goods because they are often viewed as a good way of gauging business investment plans,” the Associated Press reports. “Orders have climbed more than 45 percent since hitting a recession low in April 2009. That has kept factories busy and helped the economy grow at a slow but steady pace.”
On another positive note, the Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index (LEI) for the U.S. also improved, increasing 0.4 percent to 94.3 in December, following a 0.2 percent gain in November and a 0.6 percent increase in October. The improvement was widespread across a range of leading indicators, “suggesting economic conditions should improve in early 2012″ despite some signs of weakness in credit and financial conditions.
Jobless Claims Increase Sharply
New initial jobless claims increased in the latest week reported, largely reflecting seasonal volatility amid generally strengthening labor market conditions. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, seasonally adjusted unemployment claims for the week ending January 21 rose by 21,000 to a total of 377,000, up from the previous week’s upwardly revised total of 356,000. However, the four-week moving average, which provides a more accurate gauge of long-term employment trends, fell by 2,500 to 380,000.
The number of jobless claims typically fluctuates more widely in January, due to the end of many temporary jobs created during the holiday season. Claims hit 402,000 in the first week of January, before dropping nearly 50,000 two weeks ago and then rebounding again last week. Generally, joblessness has been on a downward trend over the past year.
“The monthly average has shown little change over the past six weeks, but its recent level suggests a declining number of layoffs in the broader economy. Claims mainly reflect how many people lose their jobs,” MarketWatch reports. “If that’s the case, the U.S. should be able to add jobs at a faster clip even if companies hire at a rate no faster than last year.”
White House Launches Supply Chain Security Program
The Obama administration has launched the National Strategy for Global Supply Chain Security, a policy aimed at strengthening the global supply chain to protect the American people and secure the country’s economic prosperity. The new program would plan for worst-case scenarios, enabling the government and industries to respond quickly to disasters that could disrupt access to vital commodities.
According to a factsheet, the program has two goals:
- Promote the efficient and secure movement of goods. The administration says this will be accomplished by: resolving threats early to expedite the flow of legitimate commerce; improving verification and detection capabilities to identify counterfeit or contaminated goods, and to prevent cargo from being compromised; enhancing security of infrastructure and conveyances by limiting access to cargo, infrastructure, conveyances and information to those with legitimate roles; and maximizing the flow of legitimate trade by modernizing supply chain infrastructure and processes.
- Foster a resilient supply chain. This will be accomplished by: mitigating systemic vulnerability to supply chain disruptions by applying risk management principles to identify and protect key assets, infrastructure and support systems; and promoting trade resumption policies and practices that provide for a coordinated restoration of the movement of goods following a disruption by applying national and global guidelines, standards, policies and programs.
“The strategy has far-reaching implications. It not only would apply to all cargo goods entering the country by ship, airplane or truck — the U.S. already inspects all of what it considers to be the highest-risk cargo — but also could set the stage for U.S. action to strengthen the security provided in other countries,” the Associated Press notes. “Obama is requiring all federal agencies and departments to report back to him within a year on how their efforts are going and make ‘recommendations for future action developed during the outreach process’ of talking with other countries.”
The Departments of State and Homeland Security will lead a six-month engagement period with the international community and industry stakeholders to solicit feedback and specific recommendations, according to an announcement last week.