More US businesses report falling sales at end of 2018

A rising number of US businesses saw falling sales and lower profit margins at the end of 2018, another sign that the American economy could be slowing.

Only 47% of firms surveyed by the National Association for Business Economics reported rising sales in the last quarter of the year, down from 61% the previous quarter, while the number of businesses reporting falling sales nearly tripled, from 6% to 17%.

The holiday season didn’t seem to bring any relief. 20% of businesses said they saw profits fall over the survey period, up from 8% in October. Most businesses aren’t optimistic about a turnaround early this year, either, with just 14% expecting bigger earnings during the first quarter.

“Most respondents do not expect a recession within the next 12 months, but fewer respondents than previously expect robust economic growth in the year ahead,” said NABE Business Conditions Survey chair Sam Kyei, the chief economist at SAK Economics.

Signs of a global slowdown, escalating trade tensions, and stock market volatility have created an uncertain economic climate for businesses and investors. A recent survey of consumer sentiment hit its lowest level since President Donald Trump took office.

The changes in trade policy are complicating plans for American manufacturers. Some that import goods from China have had to guess what the tariff rate would be on certain items.

Trump threatened to raise the rate on $200 billion of goods from 10% to 25% on January 1. He postponed the hike while the two countries continue talks during a 90-day truce, set to end in March.

More than a third of goods-producing firms said they raised prices last quarter because of the changes in trade policy, and 27% delayed investments, according to the NABE report.

Overall, only 23% of firms said they had adjusted plans for hiring or investing in reaction to trade tensions.

Many economic measures suggest the underlying economy remains robust, with hiring and wages still strong — numbers borne out in the NABE survey, in which more than half of respondents reported shortages of skilled labor. Industrial production, for example, surged by 1.1% in December. Nearly all of the firms surveyed believe that GDP will remain positive through the end of 2019.

But most federal economic reports have been frozen during the government shutdown, making it hard to know how the economy is doing. A report on fourth quarter GDP is due on Wednesday, but could still be delayed despite the temporary reopening of the government.