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US 3rd Quarter GDP: Short Term Myopia vs. Long Term Realities


The third quarter (July-Sept.) U.S. GDP figures released last Friday, October 26, estimated the US economy grew by 2%. That compares to an average growth for the first nine months of 2012 of an historic low of 1.7%. The 2% reflects, at best, a continued stagnation of the economy and, in all likelihood, an actual continuing decline for the economy over a longer run.

Here’s why: to begin with, the 2% is an initial ‘advance’ estimate. Advanced estimates recently have tended to be reduced significantly in the 2nd and 3rd revisions. To recall, the previous 2nd quarter GDP also initially came in at 1.5% but was then reduced to 1.3%. It is quite likely therefore the third quarter’s 2% will be revised downward 0.1-0.2%, which will put it almost exactly at the past year’s 1.7% average.

Secondly, every four years just before national elections politicians typically turn on the spending spigots in the third quarter to get a brief boost just before the national election. And so it was this past third quarter. The Federal government in particular accelerated Defense spending. It appears this was done by deliberately holding back defense allocations in the previous quarters in order to have an especially large impact just before the national elections in the third quarter. Federal defense spending fell by-7.1% and -0.4% in the first and second quarters of this year. In other words, it appears defense spending was slowed in the first half of the year in order to get the bigger third quarter boost just before the elections. In fact, the third quarter’s big bulge in spending – attributable virtually all to defense—was the first time in two and a half years that government spending did not decline in every consecutive quarter! The two and half years of decline in federal spending, combined with the big declines in the same the first two quarters of 2012, suggests the third quarter’s inordinate surge in defense spending was consciously planned. Federal spending in the third quarter thus amounted to a a huge third, 0.7%, of the 2.0% reported GDP growth last quarter. It is highly unlikely any such additional surge in defense, or government spending in general, will follow this fourth quarter or subsequently in 2013. So this 0.7% is a one time event and the 2% (or revised lower) third quarter GDP number is actually less than 1.5% when the one time surge is backed out of the trend. That would mean the US economy continued to slow last quarter when considered in the context of a longer term trend.

The second big contributor to the third quarter’s 2% initial growth was consumer spending. It reportedly contributed 1.4% of the 2% total for the third quarter GDP. But one needs to look at the composition of such spending in order to determine if it too will be sustained, or whether temporary forces are at work here as well.

Consumer spending is being driven not by fundamentals of real household disposable income growth, but by temporary factors as well. This past year much of consumer spending has been driven by the top 10% wealthiest households, whose spending in turn is driven largely by stock market returns. And stocks have done extremely well in 2012, boosted in particular by the Federal Reserve’s early 2012 ‘operation twist’ quantitative easing program, and over this summer by investors’ anticipation that ‘quantitative easing 3.0’ would follow, which did. Federal Reserve QE is directly correlated with surges in stock prices, as banks and investors take advantage of the free Fed money and lend it to professional investors who in turn drive up stock prices by speculating. That brings more money into the stock markets, driving up stock prices and returns to wealthier households. Returns on corporate bonds have also boosted wealthy household earnings. It is not surprising then that the top 10% households, doing very well, are in turn driving much of consumer spending, or at least inordinately so. The remaining 90% households appear to be spending in the third quarter—but not based on real income gains. Their spending is being driven by a surge in credit card issuance by banks, and usage, on the one hand, and by spending down savings on the other. Savings rates have fallen over this past summer. High on the spending list for the bottom 90% appears to continue to be auto sales, as auto companies, with bloated over production and inventories and still not fully recovered from the recent recession, compete more intensely with each other. Much of auto sales are due to deep discounting and purchase deals amounting to no interest loans stretched out over 60 months and more. But this kind of discounted sales, combined with credit and dissaving based spending cannot continue. Nor may even the stock market driven consumption of the top 10% households. In short, a scenario of declining consumer spending is likely, and this writer predicts it will begin in the present fourth quarter 2012 period once the national elections are over and the unnatural optimism of the US consumer hits a wall of reality immediately after the elections.

A third, much less important, contributor to the 2% GDP initial number is housing. Much is made of a nascent housing recovery. But there is little evidence of such. Housing will continue to ‘bump along the bottom’ for months to come, and likely for years. What indications of housing growth that has appeared last quarter is mostly ‘multifamily’ units, i.e. apartment building, as the 12 million homeowners foreclosed over the crisis are forced to rent.

Offsetting these ‘one time’ and weak factors behind the 2% GDP number are several serious negative areas in the economy that show every sign of getting worse.

After growing at a nearly 20% annual rate in the fourth quarter of 2011, business investment has declined precipitously every quarter. Spending on equipment and software in the third quarter collapsed to zero, and business spending on buildings turned a negative -4.4% last quarter. These figures represent a clear 12 month rapid decelerating trend. Fourth quarter will be no doubt negative again. Some pundits argue this is the business community registered its uncertainty and concern over the ‘fiscal cliff’ coming January 1, 2013. This writer disagrees. It is due to two factors: first, the rapid slowdown of the global economy now underway which is beginning to impact the US economy with a lag. That slowdown, moreover, shows all the signs of continuing. Second, it is due to an emerging ‘capital strike’ sending a message to Congress that business and investor tax cuts must be continued ‘or else’. Continuing, and deepening business tax cuts, of course will make the ‘fiscal cliff’ worse. So it is not a question of concern about the deficits; it is a question of business insistence upon more and more tax cuts.

Another negative area for the economy to come is reductions underway in business inventory spending. Still another is the sharp drop off in US exports (and thus manufacturing activity) as the aforementioned global economic slowdown continues to deepen. In the third quarter, US exports turned negative for the first time in more than three years—for the first time since the spring of 2009 in the midst of the last recession quarter. Something very serious therefore is now beginning to take place in global trade, US exports and therefore US manufacturing activity not seen for more than three years.
To summarize, the ‘positives’ in the third quarter GDP numbers are extremely tenuous and temporary, while the negatives in terms of business real investment, exports, trade, and global economic slowdown all appear to have long term ‘traction’ and staying power. It will be interesting to see if those politicians elected in November 2012 are able to accurately access the long term trends of importance to the US economy, or whether they are myopically intent on ensuring a collapse of consumer and government spending in 2013 while guaranteeing the wealthy continue to get their historically generous tax cuts for another decade.

Jack Rasmus is the author of the 2012 book, “Obama’s Economy: Recovery for the Few”, and hosts the radio show, ‘Alternative Visions’, on PRN.FM. He blogs at jackrasmus.com and can be followed on twitter at #drjackrasmus.  

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