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Economic Insights

Recent economic data suggest that the current eight-year business expansion could become the longest in U.S. history, powered, in part, by improved capital spending.

Last March, I wrote that a second-half recovery in global trade in 2016 may signal further acceleration this year. Earlier this month, my colleague Zane Brown noted how U.S. fundamentals have strengthened even as fiscal stimulus stalls. Now come reports from the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB, a leading small-business association) and the Institute for Supply Management’s (ISM) survey of manufacturing and nonmanufacturing that point to a “Goldilocks” economy—that is, moderate growth, low inflation, and a market-friendly monetary policy.

Taken at face value, the NFIB index suggests that any lingering negative consequences from the global financial crisis of 2008–09 have been overcome definitively. (See Chart 1.)

 

Chart 1. Small-Business and Manufacturing Data Remain Very Encouraging
NFIB and ISM surveys, January 2010–May 2017

Source: National Federation of Independent Businesses and Bloomberg.  Data as of May 31, 2017.

 

The details of the NFIB survey confirm that the labor market is very tight and that capital spending is recovering, but that it still has a way to go before matching previous levels. Meanwhile, there is little hint of any significant increase in inflation expectations, even though small businesses are increasing wage offers at a more rapid rate.

As suggested by the unemployment rate of 4.3%, and the record job vacancies highlighted in the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, small businesses are having more difficulty filling openings than they have had at almost any other time in the 30-year history of the NFIB survey.

Despite facing a tight labor market, companies are, in fact, hiring more people, and hiring plans are almost as strong as they have ever been since the end of the recession in 2001. (See Chart 2.) Note, however, that hiring plans became as aggressive as they are now in the immediate aftermath of the recovery from the downturn in 2001, while it has taken nearly eight years to reach a comparable level following the downturn in 2008–09. This is consistent with the fact that downturns accompanied by banking crises tend to be deeper and have longer-lasting negative effects than downturns that do not engender widespread failures of financial institutions. On the positive side, the unusually cautious outlook that the depths of the previous downturn may have engendered seem to have been definitively surmounted.

 

Chart 2. Small-Business Hiring on a Roll
Hiring plans and actual hiring data continue to improve, January 2002–May 2017


Source: National Federation of Independent Businesses and Bloomberg.  Data as of May 31, 2017.

 

The optimism that has already triggered more aggressive hiring intentions is also reflected in a steady rise in capital-spending plans. The fact that there is a lot of room for more increases suggests that the current eight-year business expansion could become the longest in U.S. history, powered, in part, by a late-cycle improvement in capital spending.  (See Chart 3.)

 

Chart 3. Continued Improvement in Capital Spending Suggest a Record Business Expansion 
Hiring plans and actual hiring, January 2008–May 2017



Source: National Federation of Independent Businesses and Bloomberg.  Data as of May 31, 2017.

 

Two other factors that could extend the current expansion are pay increases that lead to rising household income and consumer spending coupled with subdued inflationary pressure that discourages an overly aggressive tightening of monetary policy. The NFIB survey provides support for this almost ideal “Goldilocks” scenario.

Small businesses are increasing employee compensation relatively aggressively to retain both current workers and attract additional ones.

Meanwhile, selling-price expectations are increasing slightly, but they remain in line with the decline in actual inflation and inflation expectations. Thus, despite a tight labor market and rising pay, the NFIB survey provides additional support for the Federal Open Market Committee policy of gradual rate increases rather than a more rapid “normalization.”  In fact, the survey suggests that inflation risk remains asymmetric, with a greater probability of falling short of the U.S. Federal Reserve’s inflation target of 2% in the medium term than the chance of exceeding it.

While the near-perfect environment sketched out in the NFIB survey is unlikely to last perpetually, sometimes things really are as good as they seem.

 

This commentary may contain assumptions that are “forward-looking statements,” which are based on certain assumptions of future events. Actual events are difficult to predict and may differ from those assumed. There can be no assurance that forward-looking statements will materialize or that actual returns or results will not be materially different from those described here.

Statements concerning financial market trends are based on current market conditions, which will fluctuate. There is no guarantee that markets will perform in a similar manner under similar conditions in the future.

The information provided is not directed at any investor or category of investors and is provided solely as general information about Lord Abbett’s products and services and to otherwise provide general investment education. None of the information provided should be regarded as a suggestion to engage in or refrain from any investment-related course of action as neither Lord Abbett nor its affiliates are undertaking to provide impartial investment advice, act as an impartial adviser, or give advice in a fiduciary capacity. If you are an individual retirement investor, contact your financial advisor or other fiduciary about whether any given investment idea, strategy, product or service may be appropriate for your circumstances.

The opinions in the preceding economic commentary are as of the date of publication and are subject to change. Additionally, the opinions may not represent the opinions of the firm as a whole. The document is not intended for use as forecast, research or investment advice concerning any particular investment or the markets in general, and it is not intended to be legal advice or tax advice. This document is prepared based on information Lord Abbett deems reliable; however, Lord Abbett does not warrant the accuracy and completeness of the information.

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