London (CNN Business)Fears about whether America could fall into a recession are dominating conversations among investors and pose a risk to the Biden administration ahead of midterm elections this fall.
In the meantime, the US economy is humming along — though there are signs it is sliding into a lower gear.
That poses new challenges for companies and workers. But it could help the Federal Reserve in the medium-term, as it tries to roll back pandemic-era support for the economy and get inflation under control without generating a shock.
Here are three indicators that America’s economic engine is cooling compared to the frenzied period after coronavirus lockdowns were lifted.
1. The job market: The US jobs report for May showed Friday that 390,000 positions were added last month. That’s a solid number, and higher than expected, but down from 428,000 in April.
For much of the past year, roughly 450,000 to 650,000 jobs have been added each month.
2. The housing market: Borrowing costs have jumped as a result of the Fed’s decision to start hiking interest rates. A 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 5.09% for the week ending June 2, up from 2.99% the same time last year.
That’s driving some prospective homebuyers out of the market, helping to ease red-hot demand. Sales of existing homes in the United States fell for the third consecutive month in April.
3. The Beige Book: The Fed’s latest survey of economic conditions released this week, known as the “Beige Book,” showed that all 12 districts across the country experienced growth, but the impact of tighter financial conditions was starting to become apparent.
“Retail contacts noted some softening as consumers faced higher prices, and residential real estate contacts observed weakness as buyers faced high prices and rising interest rates,” the report said.
Eight districts reported that “expectations of future growth among their contacts had diminished,” while contacts in three districts “specifically expressed concerns about a recession.”
And yet, the data is messy. Economists at Citigroup think a pullback in hiring may not be a tangible signal the economy is really settling back into a more normal pace, for example.
“While this slowing could be a welcome sign for the Fed that demand for workers is easing, in the near term we would expect that a softer pace of job growth would more likely reflect limitations caused by short supply of workers,” they said in a research note published this week. There were 11.4 million job openings in the United States in April.
Plus, while home sales have pulled back, prices continue to climb. The median price of a home in April was a record $391,200, rising 14.8% from a year ago, according to a report from the National Association of Realtors.
That means that it’s ultimately too soon to say whether the Federal Reserve’s plan to engineer a “soft landing” for the economy is working, and that investors would be wise to continue to proceed with caution.
OPEC will pump more. A 1970s-style energy crisis still looms
OPEC has agreed to pump a bit more crude oil over the next two months as Russian production begins to drop because of Western sanctions.
Details, details: The oil exporters’ cartel said it would increase supply by 648,000 barrels per day in July and August, 200,000 barrels per day more than scheduled under a supply agreement with other producers, including Russia, known as OPEC+.
The Biden administration welcomed the “important decision from OPEC+,” and highlighted Saudi Arabia’s role as the group’s largest producer in achieving consensus.
But the market reaction to the announcement has been muted. Global oil prices rose more than 1% to about $117 per barrel on Thursday. They dropped 5% in anticipation of the announcement the previous day.
Robert McNally, president of Rapidan Energy Group, said prices increased Thursday because the OPEC move was “more symbolic than fundamentally significant.”
“I wouldn’t call it a drop in the bucket,” he told CNN Business. “It’s basically a gesture … an important one.”
Still, it’s unlikely to change the broader dynamics that have pushed up energy prices, exacerbating the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades.
Current and former energy officials tell CNN they worry that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which follows years of underinvestment in the energy sector, will create problems that will rival the oil crises of the 1970s and early 1980s.
“We have an oil crisis, a gas crisis and an electricity crisis at the same time,” Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency, told Der Spiegel in an interview published this week. “This energy crisis is much bigger than the oil crises of the 1970s and 1980s. And it will probably last longer.”
Guess who has a ‘super bad feeling’ about the economy?
JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, the most prominent executive on Wall Street, struck a harrowing tone this week when he warned he was bracing for an economic “hurricane.”
Now, the world’s richest man is sounding the alarm, too.
Tesla (TSLA) CEO Elon Musk has a “super bad feeling” about the economy and wants to slash roughly 10% of jobs at the electric vehicle maker, he told executives Thursday in an email seen by Reuters.
The message came two days after Musk told employees that they should return to Tesla’s offices and factories or leave the company.
Tesla and its subsidiaries employed around 100,000 people at the end of 2021, according to regulatory filings. Before Musk’s note, which came in an email titled “pause all hiring worldwide,” Tesla had about 5,000 job postings on LinkedIn, from sales in Tokyo and engineers in its new Berlin gigafactory to deep learning scientists in Palo Alto, according to Reuters.
The takeaway: Musk is the most prominent executive in the auto industry to signal extreme concern about the outlook. Is his “bad feeling” grounded in data, or is it the result of negative sentiment among consumers, investors and some economists?
To date, Tesla looks just fine. Despite battling significant supply chain challenges, Tesla posted record profits last quarter, smashing Wall Street’s forecasts. And domestic auto inventories have held steady, indicating that demand remains solid.
The US jobs report for May arrives at 8:30 a.m. ET.
Coming next week: The latest reading of the Consumer Price Index, which tracks US inflation.
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