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What Will Today’s G.D.P. Reading Show? Here’s a Preview


The Commerce Department will release its initial estimate of the gross domestic product — the broadest measure of goods and services produced in the economy — for the third quarter at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday. Here’s what to watch for:

  • Wall Street analysts expect the figures to show that the economy grew at an annual rate of 1.5 percent over the summer, down from 2 percent in the spring.

  • Policymakers at the Federal Reserve are likely to end their two days of meetings in Washington on Wednesday afternoon with an announcement that the central bank will once again drop its benchmark interest rates, a preventive tactic meant to stop a slowdown from turning into a slide.

The year started out with a surge as the economy expanded at an annual rate of 3.1 percent during the first three months, but the pace of growth declined in the second quarter. If the slowdown continued across July, August and September, it would be the first time in a decade that the growth rate fell for two consecutive quarters. Lydia Boussour, senior United States economist at Oxford Economics, said it was “unusual to have back-to-back retraction outside of a recession.”

Trade frictions and weak global growth are stirring up the greatest unease. Torsten Slok, chief economist at Deutsche Bank Securities, noted that business investment, chief executives’ confidence, export orders and more were all slowing. “The trend is not your friend in this data,” he said.

Other analysts, though, emphasized that the economy remained rooted in solid ground. “If I saw cracks in the consumer sector, I would be worried, but I don’t see that yet,” said Ben Herzon, executive director of United States economics at Macroeconomic Advisers, a forecasting firm. Consumer spending accounts for the largest chunk of G.D.P. by far, and that sector, he said, is in “good shape.”

Up or down, the G.D.P. report is unlikely to persuade the Fed to swerve away from lowering rates.

Economic activity suffered somewhat from a strike by workers at General Motors that began in the final two weeks of the quarter, halting production nationwide. Troubles at Boeing, the nation’s largest aerospace manufacturer and its largest manufacturing exporter, have also nibbled away at output. The company’s 737 Max has been grounded after two calamitous crashes, and deliveries of planes coming off the assembly line have largely halted.

Mr. Herzon at Macroeconomic Advisors characterized those developments as temporary. Businesses that have stepped back from building their inventories, he argued, will also reverse course soon.

Just how well the economy is doing will help shape campaign narratives for the 2020 presidential election. President Trump has repeatedly highlighted the economy’s performance as evidence that his recipe of tax cuts, deregulation and confrontational tactics on trade is working. The annual growth rate, though, has fallen short of the president’s repeated promise that it would surpass 3 percent, or even 4 percent.

In July, the White House predicted that growth would hit 3.2 percent in 2019 and remain at 3 percent or above for the next five years. That sunny outlook is far more optimistic than those of the Fed, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and most Wall Street analysts. Most forecasts hover around the 2 percent mark — a rate that many economists consider sustainable over the long haul, but one that Mr. Trump scorned in his 2016 campaign.

Whatever the growth rates, expect Democratic candidates to focus not just on the total size of the economy, but also on how its rewards are distributed.

[Read more: Americans’ views of the economy have become so hardened along partisan lines that it may matter less in next year’s presidential election than in the past.]

Word from Mr. Trump that the United States and China are close to completing what he calls “Phase 1” of an agreement helped calm some of the roiling anxiety swirling around trade relations. But there have been no substantive details on what a pact would include, and analysts remain wary that this potential breakthrough, like previous ones, could be followed by an abrupt policy reversal from the White House.

“This ‘Phase 1’ thing is trivial compared to enormous obstacles,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. He noted that summertime shopping might have been given an artificial lift by importers who rushed to bring in goods from China before tariffs were scheduled to increase in September. But that short-term gain, he warned, could mean a falloff in the next three months.

For Cris deRitis, deputy chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, the biggest risks to the economy are “uncertainty and complacency.”

“With political risks and uncertainty casting a shadow across economic regions” around the world, he said in an analysis, “the potential for policy errors and significant global shocks may overwhelm solid economic fundamentals.”


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