Strong U.S. economic growth for last quarter likely reflected consumers’ resistance to Fed rate hikes

WASHINGTON — The government is expected today to report stellar growth for the U.S. economy during the July-September quarter, highlighting the durability of consumer and business spending despite the Federal Reserve’s efforts to cool the expansion with high interest rates.

Last quarter’s robust growth, though, will probably prove to be a high-water mark for the economy before a steady slowdown beginning in the current October-December quarter and extending into 2024.

Today’s report is sure to be seized upon by the Biden administration as evidence that its policies have helped spur solid growth, though surveys show that most Americans hold a sour view of the president’s handling of the economy.

The Commerce Department’s figures are expected to show that the nation’s gross domestic product — the economy’s total output of goods and services — expanded at a 3.8% annual pace in the third quarter, according to a survey of economists by FactSet. If accurate, that would amount to the fastest quarterly pace in nearly two years and up sharply from a 2.1% growth rate in the April-June quarter. Some economists have estimated that last quarter’s annual growth could turn out to be as high as 4.5%.

Americans likely drove the economy by stepping up their spending, splurging on everything from cars to concert tickets to restaurant meals. Businesses have also been spending on new factories and other buildings, and companies likely increased their stockpiles of goods, which boosts output.

Still, the breakneck pace is expected to slow because consumers are likely reining in their spending in the final three months of the year, and the sluggish housing market is dragging on the economy. This month, nearly 30 million people began repaying several hundred dollars a month in student loans, which could slow their ability to spend. Those loan repayments had been suspended since the pandemic first struck three years ago.

The economy faces other challenges as well, including a spike in longer-term interest rates since July. The average 30-year mortgage rate is approaching 8%, a 23-year high, putting home buying out of reach for many more Americans.

Fed officials have acknowledged the pickup in growth, which could potentially undercut their efforts to fight inflation. Brisk consumer spending typically leads companies — those that sell physical goods as well as those, like restaurants and entertainment venues, in the economy’s vast service sector — to raise prices, thereby fueling inflation.

But Fed Chair Jerome Powell, in a discussion last week, said he was generally pleased with how the economy was evolving: Inflation has slowed to an annual rate of 3.7% from a four-decade high of 9.1% in June 2022. At the same time, steady growth and hiring have forestalled the recession that was widely predicted at the end of last year.

If those trends continue, it could allow the Fed to achieve a highly sought-after “soft landing,” in which the central bank would manage to slow inflation to its 2% target without causing a deep recession.

At the same time, Powell has acknowledged that if the economy were to keep growing robustly, the Fed might have to raise rates further. Its benchmark short-term rate, which affects the rates on many consumer and business loans, is now about 5.4%, a 22-year high.

“Additional evidence of persistently above-trend growth,” Powell said last week, “could put further progress on inflation at risk and could warrant further tightening of monetary policy.”

Fed officials were surprised by a blowout government report last week on retail sales, which showed that spending at stores and restaurants jumped last month by much more than expected. Americans spent more both for necessities like gas and groceries as well as for discretionary items, such as cars and restaurant meals, on which consumers typically cut back if they are worried about a weakening economy.

There are signs that consumers might continue to resist the Fed’s efforts to cool spending and the economy. Many student loan borrowers started repaying their loans before the official end of the moratorium Oct. 1, suggesting that they were able to make those payments, at least for now, without having to sharply cut back spending in other areas.

We view this initial jump as a sign that households were willing and able to resume these payments without requiring a large reduction in spending,” economists at JPMorgan write in a research note.

And while high mortgage rates have depressed the sales of existing homes, the vast majority of homeowners are still paying low rates that are fixed for 30 years, meaning that their housing costs remain low even as the Fed hikes rates. That’s a contrast to homeowners in the United Kingdom and Europe, for example, who are more likely to have floating-rate mortgages. About eight in 10 U.S. homeowners have a mortgage rate below 5%, according to online brokerage Redfin.

With inflation generally easing, the Fed is expected to keep its short-term rate unchanged when it meets next week. Many economists increasingly expect the central bank’s policymakers to keep rates on hold when they meet in December as well.

Powell will hold a news conference Wednesday that will be scrutinized for any hints about the Fed’s next moves.