Call it a tale of two U.S. economies.
Consumer spending grew last year by the most since 2005, in spite of a slight slackening in the fourth quarter. Nonresidential business investment, meanwhile, rose at its slowest pace since 2010 as oil and gas companies sharply curtailed spending.
The key theme for the economy "is the stark contrast between the fortunes of the household and business sectors," and how that plays out going forward, said Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Amherst Pierpont Securities LLC in New York.
Will the strength in consumer outlays encourage companies to step up spending and keep on hiring? Or will businesses, battered by slow global growth and a rising dollar, turn more risk averse and start to prune payrolls, undermining household spending in the process?
For now, most economists are betting that the American consumer will come out on top and the economy will avoid a recession. Some though are trimming their 2016 growth forecasts as slumping stock and corporate-bond markets make companies even less willing to expand.
“We still have a fairly solid picture in terms of domestic demand, which is mostly consumer spending, housing, and fixed investment that’s not related to energy, which is doing OK," said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS Inc. in Lexington, Massachusetts. "Those are the sources of strength in the U.S. and that’s close to 90 percent of the U.S. economy.”
Gross domestic product climbed 2.4 percent last year, matching the performance of 2014. The complexion of growth though changed, with consumer spending advancing 3.1 percent, while business outlays on structures such as factories, oil rigs and shopping centers dropped 1.5 percent.
That same dichotomy was evident in the fourth quarter, as personal consumption expenditures rose while business investment in equipment and structures dropped for the first time since the third quarter of 2012. GDP increased 0.7 percent after a 2 percent advance in the third quarter.
Households are still benefiting from solid labor market improvement as well as a decline in gasoline prices and higher home values. Those tailwinds have helped buttress spending in the face of a January slump in stock prices.