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March 4, 2024

Economic Outlook for 2024: Muted Growth Amid Global Headwinds But Recession Risks Recede

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Dec 27, 2023

The U.S. economy defied predictions and avoided a recession in 2023. While growth is expected to cool further in 2024, the risk of a downturn has diminished according to major financial institutions. However, high inflation, rising interest rates, ongoing supply chain issues and a potential return of Covid-19 could still pose challenges.

2023 Surprise: No Recession After All

After a red-hot 2021 recovery, 2022 brought a harsh slowdown as the Federal Reserve aggressively hiked rates to combat inflation. This led many experts to warn that a recession was imminent in 2023. However, resilient consumer spending and a rebound in business investment helped the economy stay afloat.

The job market also showed remarkable resilience. Unemployment remained near historic lows, wage growth stayed strong and layoffs declined sharply in recent months. This defied forecasts of significant job losses if a downturn hit.

Key 2023 Economic Metrics:

GDP Growth: 1.9% (Est.)    
Unemployment Rate: 3.7% in Nov.  
Inflation Rate: 6.5% in Nov.  
S&P 500 Return: -17.7% YTD

While far from a boom, avoiding an outright contraction has lifted hopes for 2024. Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo and Bank of America now say the odds of a near-term recession have fallen significantly. JPMorgan chief Jamie Dimon summed up the cautious optimism, saying recently:

“The U.S. economy currently remains strong with consumers still spending excess cash and businesses showing early signs of increased capital investment.”

Muted Growth Forecast Amid Global Challenges

However, analysts stress global headwinds remain which will limit U.S. expansion in 2024. Supply chain problems, the war in Ukraine and Covid outbreaks in China are all causes for concern.

The OECD predicts world GDP growth will slow further from 3.1% in 2022 to just 2.2% in 2023 and 2.7% in 2024. For the U.S. specifically, the median forecast sees GDP rising just 1.3% next year according to a recent Bloomberg survey. That’s down from 2.9% growth in 2021 and 1.9% in 2022.

US GDP Annual Growth Rate

US GDP growth is predicted to keep decelerating. Source.

This outlook reflects an economy that is clearly past its peak but still manages to keep growing at a slow and steady pace. Rising wages and strong household balance sheets should continue to support consumer resilience.

At the same time, higher borrowing costs will constrain housing, business investment and government spending. And even if a U.S. recession is avoided, downturns in Europe, the UK and emerging markets could limit export demand.

Inflation Finally Cooling but Rates Will Stay Higher

On a positive note, inflationary pressures look to finally be abating after hitting 40-year highs in 2022. Prices for many raw materials have fallen sharply while shipping costs continue to decline as supply chains start functioning better.

This is allowing the Fed to slow the pace of rate hikes. After four consecutive 0.75 point increases, the central bank went with just a 0.5 hike in December. Markets are now betting on two more 0.25 point rises in early 2023 then a prolonged hold.

But while inflation drops, it likely stays above the Fed’s 2% target next year. And with unemployment at historic lows, wages are still rising over 5% annually. This means rates could stay around 5% through late 2024 to really tamp down price growth.

Higher borrowing costs will be the main economic storyline for 2024. Cheaper lending was a key driver of growth over the past decade. Now higher rates put pressure on consumers, home prices, stocks and business activity across the board.

Managing this rate-driven slowdown, avoiding bubbles and guiding inflation back to target will be the main focus for monetary policymakers in 2024. The Fed insists the goal is a “soft landing” but opinions are mixed on whether that’s achievable amid global instability.

Risks Remain: Covid, Supply Chains, Geopolitics

While recession odds are now lower, analysts stress risks abound that could still derail growth. Coronavirus remains an ever-present threat as new variants continue emerging. A major resurgence leading to renewed lockdowns and mobility restrictions could hamper consumer and business activity.

Supply chain challenges also persist, especially for critical semiconductors. While the situation has improved, shortages still constrain auto and electronics production. Any new factory shutdowns in Asia could send prices surging and hamper manufacturing.

Geopolitics is also troubling as the Russia-Ukraine war continues with no clear resolution so far. Rising regional instability or expanded conflict would damage the global growth outlook significantly, sending energy prices and inflation spiking again.

Finally, policy risks loom as governments and central banks walk a narrow tightrope to curb price growth without severely limiting expansion. Achieving that delicate balance will prove extremely difficult amid myriad uncertainties.

Consumers Still Key with Cash to Spend But Caution Rising

Despite the obstacles, resilience has defined the U.S. economy recently. While businesses scaled back, consumers kept spending thanks to excess savings and a robust job market. Households built up an extra $2.6 trillion in savings during the pandemic and still sit on over $1 trillion in “excess” cash.

This has provided a cushion as inflation eroded purchasing power. Combined with rising wages, consumers have so far maintained surprisingly healthy spending levels.

But recession fears are taking a psychological toll. Consumer sentiment remains deeply negative and credit card balances are rising fast, hinting that savings buffers may finally be depleting. Plus surveys show households plan to cut discretionary spending in 2023 amid inflation and market volatility.

So while solid income growth and ample savings should support demand in the near-term, consumers may pull back significantly if growth slows further. And with personal consumption accounting for over two-thirds of U.S. GDP, any retrenchment would have major consequences.

Corporate Investment Signals Turning More Mixed

After driving growth in 2021-22, capital spending is set to slow in 2023-24 amid weaker sales and tighter financing conditions. But cutbacks likely happen gradually as businesses focus more on efficiency and digitization over expansion.

Initial signals support this narrative as orders for core capital goods have bounced back slightly in recent months. And corporate profit margins remain unusually high by historical standards for this stage of the economic cycle.

This suggests firms still have pricing power as demand outpaces constrained supply in many sectors. Business investment should thus weaken much more modestly than in past downturns, helping offset cautious consumers.

Capital Goods Orders YoY% Change:  

November 2022: +7.4%
October 2022: -4.3%  
September 2022: +13.7%

So while below 2021’s blistering growth pace, corporate spending should remain positive with digitization, automation and decarbonization projects continuing. This investment resilience makes navigating a “soft landing” more plausible according to JPMorgan analysts.

Housing Markets Face Bigger Correction on Rate Shock

The housing sector looks far more vulnerable as mortgage rates spiral higher after years near record lows. The 30-year fixed average hit 7% in late 2022 – more than double the sub-3% rates seen during the pandemic.

This shock has cratered affordability and buyer demand, sending home sales and construction sliding. Investment bank Goldman Sachs sees home prices falling around 6% in 2023 then another 3% in 2024 as the rate spike fully filters through.

Many analysts foresee housing markets staying under pressure until rates stabilize and wage growth eventually catches up. Younger buyers also continue entering peak home-buying age, providing an offsetting demographic boost to demand.

So real estate faces setbacks but likely avoids a full-on crash like 2006-07 or even 1990-91. Still the headwinds are intense after such an extreme run-up. Housing was the fastest growing sector coming out of Covid but gave back nearly all 33% pandemic gains in 2022.

Further identified downside risks for housing:

  • More aggressive Fed tightening if inflation persists
  • Potential spike in unemployment as recession fears linger
  • Oversupply as builder backlogs clear just as demand wanes

Overall the correcting housing sector should be a key drag on both consumer spending and GDP growth in 2023-24. But demographic trends combined with solid job and income growth provide medium term support once markets stabilize.

Job Market Still Strong for Now with Layoffs and Wages Up

The labor market has weathered rising risks exceptionally well lately. The 3.7% unemployment rate remains near 50-year lows while job openings still top worker availability across most sectors.

This imbalance has fueled strong wage gains. Average hourly earnings are rising over 5% annually – well above the pre-pandemic norm below 3%. Broad wage gains should continue supporting consumer spending power as long as hiring stays robust.

However, cracks have emerged as tech sector job cuts make headlines. And with lead economic indicators declining, broader layoffs look likely in 2023.

Overall though, analysts see unemployment ticking just marginally higher, avoiding a surge in joblessness like past recessions. This outlook is based on still-limited talent supply and changing corporate priorities in a post-Covid world.

Policy Support Fades While Vulnerabilities Build

Both fiscal and monetary policy provided tremendous support coming out of the pandemic recession. But high inflation has forced a sharp reversal toward restraint – cutting both government spending and ultra-easy money.

On the fiscal side, pandemic-era supports like enhanced jobless benefits and direct household payments have expired. And most analysts see limited likelihood of renewed fiscal stimulus.

In fact partisan battles over the debt ceiling now risk serious government spending cuts and funding gaps if compromise remains elusive. This would only further hamper growth.

Meanwhile the Fed has pushed borrowing costs higher at the fastest pace in decades, severely tightening financial conditions. Rate-sensitive sectors like housing and autos have already seen major impact.

This policy shift leaves the economy more vulnerable at a risky time amid excessive debt loads and visual market turmoil. Total public and private debt surged by over 40 percentage points of GDP since 2019 – the fastest increase on record outside of World War 2.

So while recession looks avoidable for now, the economy has very little room for error. Any further shocks like a severe Covid wave or global crisis could easily tip key sectors into deeper declines.

Market Volatility Should Continue with Muted Returns

Financial markets face immense uncertainty looking forward. The past year saw staggering swings across assets with the S&P 500 swinging from bull to bear market twice amid competing risks.

While forecasts vary widely, subdued returns look likely as corporate earnings growth slows sharply. Stocks bulls point to lower equity valuations and still-resilient profit margins to support mid single digit annual gains.

But various risks could easily trigger renewed drawdowns. Any uptick in recession odds would hit risk appetite while upside moves in wage or price inflation could spur more Fed action.

In fixed income, bonds rallied strongly in 2022’s second half but low inflation seems fully priced in now. And further volatility is likely as markets react to every bit of economic or policy news.

So while “normalization” has become the dominant narrative, markets look set for more mixed signals and churning in 2024 rather than a clear bullish or bearish trend.

Policymaker Focus on “Soft Landing” with Close Eye on Risks

Achieving a “soft landing” has become the overriding focus for financial leaders after rapid tightening through 2022. But the Fed and government have little room for policy mistakes with recession risks still elevated and inflation still sticky.

Fed chairman Jerome Powell must engineer a high-wire act in 2023 – sustaining growth while restoring price stability through data-dependent rate hikes. Forward guidance will remain purposefully vague and flexible.

Fiscal policy also looks reactive rather than proactive with universal spending supports off the table. Government could step in with targeted measures should job losses or financial stability concerns mount. But for now, risks skew more toward future austerity.

Across global institutions, guarded optimism prevails but forecasts remain clouded by myriad uncertainties. The OECD cited “marked slowdowns” across developed nations next year but stressed:

“There is still time to achieve a more favourable outcome but the buffers available to policymakers are slim.”

Vigilance and quick responses will be key to navigating the narrow path toward sustainable expansion.

Outlook Hinges on Inflation Trajectory with Recession Still Possible

The economic outlook depends heavily on whether persistently high inflation early in 2023 prods the Fed into more aggressive tightening. This could reverberate globally, sinking demand sharply while sending commodity prices and wage growth higher.

Under this “stagflationary” scenario, recession risks would surge – especially if coronavirus resurges or geopolitical tensions worsen. Even a shallow downturn could significantly impact incomes and employment if corporate resilience also wavers.

However, early progress on easing supply problems and cooling inflation would boost hopes for the “soft landing” scenario. This would allow the Fed to stop hiking and eventually support growth through rate cuts in 2024 or 2025 as inflation falls toward target.

In reality, wildcards abound making reliable forecasts impossible. But the base case expects positive yet lackluster growth near 1-2%, slowing further toward potential late in 2024. Inflation falls but stays moderately high as markets stay volatile amid myriad global challenges.

Avoiding recession depends on steady improvements cooling price growth without excessively damaging labor markets or sparking financial instability. Achieving this optimal scenario is far from guaranteed with complexity rising and buffers shrinking.

So optimism remains guarded at best looking forward. But the economy has proven surprisingly resilient lately, giving hope that consumers and businesses can adapt to shifting conditions amid global headwinds. The outlook certainly warrants close monitoring with flexibility to change course critical for policymakers.

After turbocharged growth in 2021, high inflation and sharp rate hikes triggered an abrupt transition toward restraint across markets and the real economy. The watchwords for 2024 are moderation, stabilization and resilience as household, corporate and policy sectors all adjust to more sustainable expansion pathways.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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