Despite slowdown, economists upbeat about growth

Business economists' group says expansion is still on track

Container ships sit docked in a berth at the Port of Oakland on Feb. 17, 2015.
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Container ships sit docked in a berth at the Port of Oakland on Feb. 17, 2015.

The economy hit a bit of a soft spot this winter, but the slowdown is just temporary, according to a recent survey of business economists. (Tweet this)

The pace of growth in sales of product and services at America's largest companies slowed and fewer of them booked higher profits, according to the latest quarterly survey of business conditions by the National Association for Business Economics. That drove down the survey's index tracking the number of companies reporting rising versus falling sales.

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But the majority of respondents said they expect sales to begin rising again over the next three months.

"(The) results indicate a marked deceleration in growth across the board in the first quarter," said Jim Diffley, senior director at IHS Economics who oversaw the survey. "However, the panel did not pull back on bullish expectations for the upcoming quarter."

The pace of hiring was little changed in the first quarter, with about a third of companies saying they expect to boost payrolls. Fewer companies said they planned layoffs. Expectations for the coming quarter were unchanged.

A majority of respondents overall said their companies had no problem filling job openings. But a larger share of companies in the services and transportation, utilities, information and communications sectors said they were having a hard time filling positions.

Some 45 percent of companies reported that they boosted wages in the first quarter, up from 31 percent in January. About the same number expect to increase wages in the next three months.

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Capital spending slipped, giving up most of the strong gains in the last three months of last year. About a third said they boosted spending, down from about half of those surveyed in January. Companies reported roughly the same level of pullback in plans for future spending.

But the survey found that most economists expect growth to pick up again this year, despite some recent signs of weakness in the latest data.

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"Over the past three months, the prices of crude oil and the dollar have not had a material impact on the outlook for the majority of respondents' firms," said NABE President John Silvia, who is chief economist at Wells Fargo. "Due to unusually harsh weather and dock strikes on the West Coast, growth in the first quarter appears to be an outlier within the broader economic outlook."

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The drop in crude prices has hurt about one in five companies and helped roughly a third of them. Roughly half said cheaper oil was not having an impact.

About a third of companies reported that they've raised the prices they charge their customers, double the level who reported price jumps in January. But some three-quarters of companies said they don't expect to raise prices in the next three months. That's up from about two-thirds in January.