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Consumers, soybeans fuel US Q2 growth

Front-loading of exports also helps bump up figures, but economists warn of slower growth ahead amid trade war tensions

The front-loading of soybean exports, however, depleted farm inventories. As a result, inventories were a drag on GDP growth, subtracting 1.0 percentage point after adding 0.27 percentage point in the first quarter.


THE US economy grew at its fastest pace in nearly four years in the second quarter as consumers boosted spending and farmers rushed shipments of soybeans to China to beat retaliatory trade tariffs before they took effect in early July.

Gross domestic product increased at a 4.1 per cent annualised rate also as government spending picked up, the Commerce Department said in its snapshot of second-quarter GDP on Friday. That was the strongest performance since the third quarter of 2014.

January-March quarter GDP growth was revised up to a 2.2 per cent pace from the previously reported 2.0 per cent rate to account for new source information and methodology improvements.

Compared to the second quarter of 2017, the economy grew 2.8 per cent. Output expanded 3.1 per cent in the first half of 2018, putting the economy on track to achieve the Trump administration's target of 3 per cent annual growth.

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A measure of domestic demand surged at a 4.3 per cent rate in the second quarter. Ahead of the release, President Donald Trump and members of his economic team had been promoting the notion that second-quarter growth would be robust.

Earlier in the week he tweeted that the United States has "the best financial numbers on the planet."

The second-quarter increase in GDP was in line with economists' expectations. With Friday's report the government also published comprehensive revisions to prior GDP data, which did not change the previously presented economic picture.

The United States slapped 25 per cent duties on US$34 billion worth of Chinese goods effective July 6, provoking a similar response from Beijing, which targeted soybeans and other agricultural products as well as US-made cars.

Mr Trump has also imposed tariffs on steel and aluminium imports, leading to retaliation by the United States' main trade partners, including Canada, the European Union, Mexico and China. There was also a front-loading of exports of other goods in the second quarter.

With the trade-related boost expected to unwind in the second half of the year, economists caution against putting much weight on the April-June quarter growth. The economy will this year be supported by a US$1.5 trillion tax cut package and increased government spending in the last quarter.

But economists have begun to question whether it can continue at this pace in the face of trade tensions and rising rates. The stimulus is expected to fade sometime next year.

Import duties are seen undercutting economic growth, with higher prices for goods discouraging consumer spending and businesses shelving investment plans. Economists in a Reuters poll earlier this week predicted that growth will slow notably from here.

For now, strong growth in the second quarter will keep the Federal Reserve on course to raise interest rates two more times this year. The US central bank increased borrowing costs in June for the second time this year and forecast two more rate hikes for 2018.

Growth in consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of US economic activity, increased at a 4.0 per cent rate in the second quarter, accelerating from the first quarter's stall-speed pace of 0.5 per cent.

Consumer spending is being driven by the lower taxes and a robust labor market, which created an average of 215,000 jobs per month in the first half of this year.

The front-loading of deliveries of soybean and other goods boosted exports in the second quarter, which grew at their quickest pace since the fourth quarter of 2013, sharply narrowing the trade deficit.

Trade contributed 1.06 percentage points GDP growth in the second quarter after being neutral in the January-March period.

The front-loading of soybean exports, however, depleted farm inventories. As a result, inventories were a drag on GDP growth, subtracting 1.0 percentage point after adding 0.27 percentage point in the first quarter.

Business spending on equipment slowed, rising at a 3.9 per cent rate in the second quarter. Spending on equipment grew at an 8.5 per cent rate in the first three months of the year. A further moderation is likely as the trade wars cast a pall on the business spending outlook.

General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler on Wednesday cut their full-year profit forecasts, citing higher steel and aluminium costs.

Harley-Davidson has warned that more expensive steel and aluminium and a 25 per cent retaliatory duty imposed by the European Union on shipments from the United States could cost the motorcycle maker US$45 million to US$55 million this year.

Investment in homebuilding fell for a second straight quarter in part as an acute shortage of houses available for sale reduced brokers' commissions. Government spending grew at a 2.1 per cent rate, quickening from the first-quarter's 1.5 per cent pace. REUTERS

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