In 2015 America has seen its share of sour economic data. Employment growth has slowed and investment spending is stalling. Consumers are not opening their wallets. And there was more bad news today: the first estimate of first-quarter GDP showed that the economy is now growing at a snail’s pace of 0.2% year-on-year.
What’s behind this blip? The very cold weather at the beginning of the year forced many Americans to stay at home instead of going to the shops. The strong dollar is also hitting firms: a third of revenues from companies in the S&P 500 index come from abroad. Corporate profits fell by 1.6% in the fourth quarter of 2014 and were 6.4% lower than in the same quarter of 2013. As profits have been squeezed, investment has also stalled.
Measly wages are another important factor. Lots of the jobs created in the past year or so have been in low-wage professions, like retail. And there is still plenty of “slack” in the American labor market. The number of part-time workers who would rather be full-timers—so-called “part-time for economic reasons”—fell much more slowly than the official unemployment rate following the recession.
The worry will be that the Federal Reserve has once again overestimated the strength of the American economy. It once seemed possible that the Fed might raise rates as early as today. Yet as poor data have slipped into the mix, markets have pushed back their forecast for when the first interest rate increase will come. This afternoon the Fed confirmed that its benchmark interest rate would stay where it has been since late 2008, at just above zero, for another few months at least. Weak growth is one concern. Weak inflation is another. The new GDP figures showed a deceleration in the Fed’s favored inflation gauge: in both the headline figure, which was expected given the dramatic decline in oil prices, and in the core.
Contrary to what many analysts had been predicting a while ago, June will probably come and go without a rate rise. The Fed’s statement expressed continued faith that the economy is moving in the right direction, and toward a 2015 rate increase. Markets are skeptical. A few more data releases like this one and the Fed will need to adjust its communications to explain why markets have got it wrong—or why the Fed has.