An unusual pattern has appeared in the US economy. “Hard” and “soft” data “are splitting so dramatically that an Olympic gymnast would applaud”, says Robin Wigglesworth in the Financial Times. Soft data refers to business and household sentiment surveys; hard data are the official statistics.
The real-economy data “continues to bumble along at [an] uninspiring speed”. Retail sales barely grew in February, for instance. Yet consumer confidence has reached its highest level since 2000. The gulf between hard and soft statistics hasn’t been this wide since 2000, according to Morgan Stanley.
The divergence is starting to creep into forecasts too, as ValueWalk.com points out. Forecasters who incorporate soft data into their gauges tracking output are more optimistic about the likely figure for annualised growth in the first quarter of 2017: the New York Federal Reserve Bank expects 3%. Morgan Stanley and the Atlanta Fed, who rely largely on official numbers, forecast 1%.
The divergence is “a fascinating study in perception of the US economy versus the reality”, says Elena Holodny on BusinessInsider.com. The gap opened up after Trump’s election as hopes of a fiscal stimulus package and deregulation spread. Whether the official data catches up will depend on what the government can achieve. Developments in Washington will soon indicate what we can expect, but the danger is that investors continue to overestimate the scope for stimulus. In conjunction with eye-watering valuations, that means the reflation trade in US-led global markets could come to a sticky end.