New orders for U.S.-made capital goods fell for a second straight month in January and shipments barely rose, pointing to a slowdown in business spending on equipment after robust growth in 2017.
The report from the Commerce Department on Tuesday added to weak January retail sales, industrial production and home sales data in suggesting that economic growth moderated early in the first quarter. That was also underscored by other data showing a widening in the goods trade deficit in January.
"It is early but it's shaping up to be a soft start to 2018," said Jennifer Lee, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets in Toronto.
Orders for non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft, a closely watched proxy for business spending plans, dropped 0.2 percent last month after declining 0.6 percent in December.
That was the first back-to-back drop in these so-called core capital goods orders since May 2016. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast these orders rising 0.5 percent last month. Orders increased 8.0 percent on a year-on-year basis.
Shipments of core capital goods edged up 0.1 percent after an upwardly revised 0.7 percent rise in December. Core capital goods shipments are used to calculate equipment spending in the government's gross domestic product measurement. They were previously reported to have increased 0.4 percent in December.
U.S. financial markets were little moved by the data as investors monitored Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell's debut testimony before lawmakers. Powell said the U.S. central bank would stick with gradual interest rate increases.
In another report on Tuesday, the Commerce Department said the goods trade deficit rose 3.0 percent to $74.4 billion in January. Exports of goods fell $3.1 billion to $133.9 billion. Goods imports slipped $0.9 billion to $208.3 billion.
The department also said wholesale inventories increased 0.7 percent in January. Retail inventories rose 0.8 percent.
Growth estimates for the first-quarter range from a 1.9 percent to 3.2 percent annualized rate. Business spending on equipment increased at its fastest pace in more than three years in the fourth quarter, contributing to the economy's 2.6 percent growth pace during the final three months of the year.
Despite January's decline in core capital goods orders, spending on equipment is likely to remain supported, with companies expected to use some of their windfall from a $1.5 trillion tax cut package to boost productivity.
The Trump administration slashed the corporate income tax rate to 21 percent from 35 percent effective January.
Last month, orders for machinery fell 0.4 percent. There were also declines in orders for primary metals and electrical equipment, appliances and components. Orders for computers and electronic products rose 0.6 percent.
Overall orders for durable goods, items ranging from toasters to aircraft meant to last three years or more, tumbled 3.7 percent last month as demand for transportation equipment plunged 10.0 percent. That was the biggest drop in six months and followed a 2.6 percent jump in December.
Boeing reported on its website that it received only 28 aircraft orders in January compared to 265 in December.
Orders for motor vehicles and parts nudged up 0.1 percent last month after slipping 0.1 percent in December.