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GDP Rises, Barely, as Fed Slices Interest Rates to Jolt Economy

The U.S. economy grew at a weak 0.6% in the first quarter, surpassing some economists’ paltry expectations of 0.2%. But hidden in the supporting data were trends that don’t bode well for the commercial real estate industry, particularly the office and retail sectors.

Meanwhile, The Federal Reserve took another bold step Wednesday in an effort to stabilize the economy and jump-start the faltering housing market. It dropped short-term interest rates one-quarter percentage point to 2%, the lowest rate since 2004. It was the fourth time this year that The Fed has lowered its benchmark federal funds rate.

The increase in real GDP, the same as in the fourth quarter, reflects higher inventory investment, along with increased exports, services and federal spending, according to the Commerce Department.

“The number on paper seems positive. But if you parse the details, there is bad news for the commercial sector and the retail sector,” says Rajeev Dhawan, an economist at GeorgiaStateUniversity.

“The investment figures, especially in equipment and software, showed negative growth. That’s a clear sign that businesses are not expanding, which means less demand for office and commercial space down the road. Investment today means jobs tomorrow, and jobs go hand in hand with office spacing.”

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, equipment and software investment decreased 0.7% in the first quarter, compared with an increase of 3.1% in the fourth quarter of 2007.

With regard to jobs, the federal government’s report on the nation’s employment status, expected on Friday, is considered an even more important indicator of how the economy is faring. Economists also say that is a good forecast tool for the commercial real estate industry.

“GDP is looking in the rear view mirror. Job growth is more critical to demand for commercial real estate,” says Robert Bach, senior vice president and chief economist for Grubb & Ellis.

He expects that the Labor Department’s report on Friday will show a loss of some 80,000 jobs for April. The critical figure, he says, would be a loss of 100,000 jobs, which would indicate serious problems for the economy.

“To me that 100,000 is an important threshold. That’s a tipping point. If we can keep that figure [less than] 100,000 jobs lost, I think that will be a small moral victory for the economy,” Bach says.

He was among the economists who had anticipated that real GDP would grow even less than the government reported for the first quarter. “It’s a modest bit of good news. Compared to what it could have been, it’s a hopeful sign,” Bach says. But he notes that the figure is subject to revision. “I don’t put a lot of stock in it. The economy is on the cusp of recession.”

Wednesday’s early estimate of real GDP, the output of goods and services produced by labor and property, could be revised as more solid data become available.

Suzanne Mulvee, senior real estate economist at Boston-based research firm PPR, is not particularly encouraged by Wednesday’s GDP report. “When I see GDP of 0.6%, that doesn’t give me comfort, except that maybe this will be a milder recession than expected,” she says.

“We need to look at the components that drove that slightly positive growth. I understand it was businesses investing more in inventories,” she says.

Consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of GDP. Real personal consumption spending increased 1% in the first quarter compared with an increase of 2.3% in the fourth quarter of 2007, the Commerce Department reports. However, purchases of durable goods decreased 6.1% over the same period, and purchases of nondurable goods fell 1.3%, compared with an increase of 2.3% in the fourth quarter.

The price index for purchases by U.S. residents rose 3.5% in the first quarter, compared with 3.7% in the fourth.

Mulvee is particularly concerned about the retail sector, and says that the price of gas and food is posing a dilemma for consumers. “Typically, gas accounts for 10.2% of retail spending, and we spent 13.2% in March.” Spending on gasoline accounted for 55% of the increase in retail sales over the last 12 months, she says.

Some economists believe that consumers will further cut back on trips to the mall to save on gas and to cut back general expenses, and that online shopping will become a larger factor in the retail sector.

“I think the consumer has a lot of issues,” Mulvee says. “There is suffering in the marketplace.”

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