David J. Phillip/AP
President Trump has been steadfastly claiming that his policies will catapult the U.S. economy into a much higher rate of growth — 4 percent over the next few years.
That would be about double the growth rate in recent years. And it would almost certainly mean a big boost in the standard of living for many Americans, with higher wages and better public services as the government raked in more tax dollars from a booming economy.
But most economists say such a strong growth rate is unlikely to last.
But, at least for the second quarter of this year, the stars have aligned, and many analysts think the government could report 4 percent or even 5 percent annualized gross domestic product growth on Friday.
That would be a whopping big number — and would likely be trumpeted by the White House. But most economists caution this will be a one-off growth spurt and not a new sustained trend.
Exports are a particularly dramatic example. Ian Shepherdson, the chief economist of Pantheon Macroeconomics, says the Trump administration’s ongoing trade fight with China is a big threat to the economy. But in recent months, the trade dispute sparked an unexpected short-term boost in exports.
“We saw an enormous surge in soybean exports,” Shepherdson says. And that gave the overall export numbers a big lift. That’s because, ahead of retaliatory tariffs by China on U.S. agricultural products, China went on a soybean buying spree.
But that boost in exports will now reverse because the tariffs have been imposed, Shepherdson says. And, he says, that will be a drag on the economy. “I think some of these components, which look great in the second quarter, won’t look so great in the third, in particular the foreign trade numbers,” he says.
“There’s going to be a payback,” says John Silvia, the chief economist at Wells Fargo. Both he and Shepherdson are are predicting very strong second-quarter GDP growth of 4.5 percent or higher.
Still, Silvia says, “you can have a very strong second quarter” but growth will slow to about 2 percent to 2.5 percent as the export picture turn negative.
Another factor at play here is tax cuts. They’re boosting the economy, but Shepherdson says that just creates “a short-term sugar rush to growth and then probably some sort of hangover eventually down the line.”
He says that if the government had passed a big infrastructure plan, it would have meant long-term projects that would have helped boost growth and underlying productivity for years to come. Instead, Shepherdson says, the tax cuts gave millions of Americans a one-time income boost and that’s now being spent on “on gadgets and cars and vacations.” But, he says, that growth in spending will fizzle.
Silvia says the tax cut will have a longer lasting effect, but nowhere near enough to sustain 4 percent or 5 percent GDP growth. He predicts about 2.5 percent growth for 2019 — a bit better than the 2 percent of recent years. Shepherdson predicts about the same.
Just about all economists say the biggest wildcard is the ongoing trade fight with China and other major trading partners. If that escalates and disrupts supply chains and damages exports further, they say all bets are off on whether the economy will be growing at all or sliding toward a recession.