How the economy is really doing

How the economy is really doing
Posted at 9:06 AM, May 05, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-05 09:06:35-04

It looks like the US economy is perking up under President Trump.

The government reported a strong gain in jobs for April on Friday morning, and the unemployment rate fell to its lowest level since May 2007.

It seems that consumers, small businesses and corporate CEOs are in a better mood since Trump took office as well.

It's an open subject for debate: Is this newfound sense of optimism due more to hopes about Trump's pro-business, pro-growth agenda? Or is it the residual effects of policies from President Obama and low interest rates from the Federal Reserve?

But it's undeniable that several key economic indicators have shown signs of improvement since the inauguration -- and even going back to November right after the election.

Other measures of the economy are mixed though. Here's a look at some of the most important barometers of the economy's health.



1. Jobs

The unemployment rate hit a 10-year low of 4.4% in April. That is clearly good news for Trump.

Even the so-called underemployment rate, a number some consider the "real" unemployment rate since it includes people working part-time that want a full-time job, fell to 8.8% in April.

That is the lowest since November 2007.

Other numbers point to a healthier labor market too: 522,000 jobs have been added in the first three full months after Trump took office.

And wages have risen 2.5% in the past 12 months. That's still below the 3% level the President, the Fed and many workers would like to see, but it's a big improvement from just 2% shortly after the Great Recession ended.

2. Housing prices

For many Americans, the bulk of their wealth is tied up in their home. There's good news on that front.

According to the National Association of Realtors, the median price for an existing home was $236,400 -- up 4% from the start of the year.

Financing for housing is still fairly affordable too. The average 30-year mortgage rate is 4.02% according to Freddie Mac.

Rates have fallen this year along with the yield on the long-term 10-Year U.S. Treasury bond, and that's despite the fact that the US Federal Reserve will likely keep boosting short-term rates.

3. Lending

Consumers continue to borrow money to buy cars, purchase things on credit cards and be able to afford college. The Fed said that consumer credit rose 4.8% annually in February (the most recent figures available) to $3.79 trillion.

It's encouraging that consumers are still willing to take on debt and it's an even better sign that they are paying their bills on time too. The delinquency rate on credit cards was just 2.3% at the end of 2016, compared to a peak of 6.8% in the middle of 2009.

But businesses are no longer as interested in borrowing money. Commercial and industrial loan volume was $2.08 trillion in March. Demand for these loans has fallen for two straight months and are down from a recent peak of $2.1 trillion in November.

It's not a cause for alarm just yet, but if businesses stop borrowing to finance growth and subsequently hire less as a result, that could be a problem for Trump.

4. Consumer spending

Shop 'till you drop? It seems that consumers may have dropped after a holiday spending binge.

Personal consumption expenditures, a fancy way of saying consumer spending, were flat in February and March. Consumer spending makes up a majority of the nation's overall economic activity.

So the weak spending was a key reason why the nation's gross domestic product rose at an annualized pace of just 0.7% in the first quarter -- far below the 3% rate many in the Trump administration are touting as doable.

This is hurting retailers too. Competition from Amazon isn't their only problem. Consumers have simply slowed down their pace of spending. The government said in April that retail sales fell 0.2% in March, following a 0.3% decline in February.

5. Trade

This is perhaps the thorniest issue for Trump. He's been hypersensitive about deals with all of America's major partners. His pledge to "Buy American and Hire American" could put the US at odds with China, Japan, Europe, Mexico and even Canada.

But Trump has good reason to be worried. The US trade deficit has narrowed only slightly in the past few months -- and the gap has widened with China and Mexico. And the overall trade deficit is still significant -- $43.7 trillion.

6. Stocks

Still a clear bright spot for the president. The major market indexes are near all-time highs.

The Dow is up 6% this year while the Nasdaq, home to high profile tech stocks Apple, Google owner Alphabet, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft, is up 13%.

Some of the optimism is due to the continued belief that Trump will eventually be able to lower corporate taxes and reduce regulation on health care and banks.

But strong earnings growth is fueling the rally too. According to FactSet, profits for S&P 500 companies in the first quarter are on track to rise more than 10% for the first time since the fourth quarter of 2011.

If those companies eventually start hiring more too, then Trump would be able to show that Wall Street and Main Street can actually both thrive at the same time.