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Where U.S. economy stands right now, growing with low wages

While the politics surrounding health care reform have taken center stage, you might be interested to know that the U.S. economy continues to chug along. With the first six months in the books, here’s where things stand.

ECONOMIC GROWTH Over the past 50 years or so, the economy has grown by about 3 percent annually, as measured by gross domestic product, known as GDP. However, in the past decade, GDP growth has dropped to an average of about 2 percent annually; 2015 was the best year (up 2.6 percent) and 2009 was the worst year (down 2.8 percent).

For 2017, we only have official data for Q1 (up 1.4 percent), but Q2 should show improvement, leaving us at the same old 2 percentish GDP for the first half of the year. That said, the current expansion, which has now entered its 97th month, is the third longest in U.S. history, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

LABOR MARKET The economy has added 180,000 jobs per month on average in 2017, down from the more than 200,000 per month in 2014, 2015 and 2016. But this far into the labor market recovery, which did not turn positive until 2010, most economists expect employment gains to slow down.

The unemployment rate, which fell to a 16-year low of 4.3 percent in May, edged up to 4.4 percent in June. Meanwhile, wages remain stubbornly low, with annual gains of just 2.5 percent in June, which is just about where we have been for the past year. There has been very little pickup in wage growth over the past 18 months. According to economist Joel Naroff, “Worker spending power is growing by less than 1 percent, which makes it hard for people to spend a lot more money.” Without more consumer spending, it’s hard to see how the economy is going to kick into a higher gear.

FEDERAL RESERVE RATE HIKES In 2017, the Federal Reserve has raised short-term interest twice, each time by a quarter of a percent. In the most recent meeting, the central bankers seemed more concerned about normalizing rates than not seeing much inflation in the economy. Most economists believe that the Fed will raise rates one more time this year, either in September or December, but as always the decision will be data dependent.

The focus for the remainder of the year will likely be how the Fed unwinds large portions of its balance sheet. As a reminder, during the financial crisis, the central bank stepped in and purchased government and mortgage-backed securities to provide liquidity and to keep interest rates low. Over the past decade, the Fed’s total assets have grown from $870 billion in August 2007 to $4.4 trillion today. The manner in which the Fed shrinks those holdings could have a big impact on financial markets.

HOUSING “My kingdom for a house!” The biggest hurdle for the housing market is low inventory; housing starts, housing permits, new home construction and pending home sales have all slowed down. “Ten years ago, the problem in the housing market was lack of buyers,” according to NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun. “Today, the problem is lack of sellers. Inventory levels are near historic lows.” With pent-up demand rising, mortgage rates still low, and the economy on track to continue growing, that may start to change.

STOCK MARKET Forget potential tax cuts, infrastructure spending and regulatory reform; robust corporate profits drove indexes higher in the first six months of the year. The S&P 500 and Dow Jones industrial average were each up 8 percent and the Nasdaq is ahead by 14 percent — its best first half since 2009.

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