A resurgent US economy could be the President’s Trump card

Take housing, for example. Even with unemployment at 10.2pc, the monetary stimulus poured on by the Federal Reserve and generous financial support to households has helped light a fire under the market. July saw a huge rebound in construction starts on new homes, jumping 22pc to an annualised pace of 1.5m during the month. That was well in excess of expectations and the highest since 2006, when the pre-financial crisis housing bubble was just swelling to a peak.

Alongside that fillip, the number of building permits – a decent indicator of future demand – also rocketed more than 18pc to 1.5m. Meanwhile sales of existing homes soared by a quarter to hit 5.9m, wiping out all of the damage to the market inflicted by Covid-19. No wonder confidence among housebuilders has soared to its highest level for more than 20 years.

The figures certainly raised eyebrows among economists, with Capital Economics suggesting that the speed of the turnaround “is still something of a surprise”. The construction boom is such that the builders are even worried that a lumber shortage could put the brakes on the housing recovery after production was cut and pre-existing stockpiles wound down, more than doubling the price.

The shock of the pandemic hasn’t crimped the US consumer either, helped out by those $1,200 government cheques in the spring and $600 a week benefit top-ups until last month. A third successive month of rising retail spending has left sales 2.5pc above the pre-Covid peak at their highest since records began in 1992.

Admittedly, the 1.2pc advance last month was the weakest since the shutdown, but sales were still 2.7pc above the same month last year. Personal consumption accounts for 70pc of the economy and shoppers are spending more online, even though they are still avoiding bricks and mortar retailers and restaurants for now. 

Other signs of politically useful momentum for Trump come from manufacturers, which have recouped some 60pc of output lost to Covid-19. Financial data firm IHS Markit’s snapshot of manufacturing and services activity – albeit less reliable due to the wild swings of the pandemic – is now at an 18-month high, which suggests that companies are shrugging off the worrying jump in Covid-19 infections seen in July.

Oxford Economics’ latest recovery tracker, which monitors a basket of measures from flights to steel production and mortgage applications, indicates a majority of US states showing recovery signs for the first time since April. Those include Florida, a key swing state that the President will need to retain to win again in November. 

These signs of momentum will be borne out in the third quarter GDP estimates, due to land in the full heat of an election campaign in mid-October and likely to show the US economy surging at an annualised rate of as much as 20pc. No matter that the second quarter decline was even steeper, or that in 2020 overall the US economy will shrink some 5pc: mathematics alone means Trump can and will boast of a record performance for the economy between July and September.

That line of attack could prove fruitful against his Democrat rival Joe Biden, whose rope-a-dope election strategy thus far has been to sit back and say nothing as the President committed blunder after blunder in his early response to the pandemic. That response won’t hold for much longer, though.

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