A closely-watched proxy for business spending plans unexpectedly fell last month, a strong indication that U.S. economic growth slowed in the first quarter of this year.
The Commerce Department reported that orders for non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft slipped 0.1% in March. The decline — the third in four months — followed February’s 0.9% increase in core capital goods orders.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast a 0.5% rise in core capital goods orders in March. Orders increased 6.5% on a year-on-year basis.
The Financial Times said last month’s drop “could weigh on economists’ estimates of growth in the first quarter,” noting that it “comes after Republicans in December pushed through the U.S. Tax Cuts and Jobs Act aimed at promoting business investment. However, recent trade tension with China could have damped down investment.”
According to a Reuters survey, economists forecast GDP growth likely slowed to a 2.0% annualized rate in the first three months of the year. The economy grew at a 2.9% pace in the fourth quarter.
“The anticipated slowdown in economic growth is likely to be temporary against the backdrop of a robust labor market that is expected to underpin consumer spending,” Reuters said.
Core capital goods orders in February were weighed down by a 1.7% decline in orders for machinery, the biggest drop since April 2016, after a gain of 0.3% in February. There were, however, increases in orders of primary metals, computers and electronic products, fabricated metals and electrical equipment, appliances and components.
Overall orders for durable goods, items ranging from toasters to aircraft that are meant to last three years or more, increased 2.6% in March as demand for transportation equipment rose 7.6%. Ex-transportation, new orders were relatively unchanged from the previous month.
Durable goods orders surged 3.5% in February. Economists had expected a 1.6% increase last month.
“The U.S. economy is still moving higher,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York. “The pullback in goods orders from companies is not a red flag for the economic outlook yet even if the caution light should be left on.”