US GDP—On the Road to Double Dip?

US GDP data released on January 30, 2013 for the fourth quarter 2012 showed a decline in GDP of -0.1% for the last three months of 2012, thus raising the specter of the US economy, facing still further deficit spending cuts in 2013 amidst declining consumer confidence, may be on track for a possible double dip recession in 2013 or 2014 along with other economies in Europe, the UK, and Japan.

In the fourth quarter GDP numbers, government and business inventory spending led the decline. To the extent consumer spending played a positive role at all in the 4th quarter, it was largely driven by auto sales—stimulated by auto dealers offering buyers deep price discounts, virtually free credit with near 0% auto loan interest rates, as well as new auto purchases in the northeast as a result of Hurricane Sandy’s destruction of existing auto stock. 2012 Holiday season retail sales data, in contrast, were otherwise not particularly notable and would have been much worse without the auto sales exception. How much longer auto companies can continue the deep price discounts and free credit remains a question going forward. Net export sales continued to sag in the last quarter, as the slowdown in world manufacturing and trade continued. And, as others have noted, an important source of past consumer spending and GDP growth—i.e. health care services—began to slow ominously at the end of 2012 as well, promising to continue that trend into 2013.

This weak scenario in the fourth quarter 2012, and the virtual absolute stop to US economic growth, was predicted on this writer’s and other public blogs in a piece entitled “US 3rd Quarter GDP: Short Term Myopia vs. Long Term Realities” last October 2012 (see jackrasmus.com, as well as in this writer’s April 2012 book, ‘Obama’s Economy: Recovery for the Few’).

Last October 2012, it was noted that the 3% growth rate in the preceding 3rd quarter, July-September 2012, period was artificially produced by record levels of one-quarter federal defense spending accounting for more than one third of total GDP growth in the quarter. That government spending surge was preceded by more than two years of federal government spending reductions, and thus the third quarter defense-government spending acceleration represented previously held back government spending, to be released right before the November 2012 elections. It was predicted in the above blog commentary on GDP 3rd quarter results that government spending therefore would decline sharply in the following fourth quarter—which it did. It was further noted business inventory spending was on a track to decline as well in the fourth quarter, and that US net exports, having turned negative in the third quarter, would continue to decline in the fourth quarter—all of which also occurred in the latest GDP report. The true US GDP growth trend for July-September was therefore not the 3% reported, but only around 1-1.5% for the third quarter when the appropriated adjustments are made. And that 1.5% or so has been the average GDP rate for more than two years. Then the bottom dropped out in the fourth quarter, as GDP collapsed to -0.1%.

So what’s going on? Is the fourth quarter GDP an aberration? A temporary one-time event? Or a harbinger of a still further slowing US economy, moving more in line with global economic trends indicating a slow but steady further slowdown?

In the first quarter 2013, a number of negative developments in the fourth quarter will likely continue, along with new negative developments, together suggesting the first quarter 2013 GDP will at best look much like the fourth quarter—and could even prove worse.

First, more than $100 billion has been taken out of the economy with the end of the payroll tax cut last January 1. Second, consumer sentiment and spending is showing a definite sharp decline in the early months of 2013. Deficit cutting will intensify with a deal on the ‘sequestered’ $1.2 trillion agreement that will occur in March in Congress. Defense spending cuts projected will be reduced, but non-defense spending will occur and perhaps even rise. Consumer spending on autos, which has been a plus in 2012, cannot continue at the prior pace. Health care spending will likely continue to slow, as health insurance premiums of 10-20% continue to be imposed in the new year by price gouging health insurance companies looking to maximize their returns in 2013 in anticipation of Obamacare taking effect in 2014. Business spending that occurred in the fourth quarter to take advantage of tax laws will almost certainly slow in the first quarter. Industrial production and manufacturing will add little, if anything, to the economy and housing will contribute to growth through apartment construction only. In short, the scenario is one of continued very slow growth.

It is not the deficit that faces a ‘cliff’; it is the US economy. As this writer has repeatedly written since last November, the ‘fiscal cliff’ was mostly an economic farce. Real forces were further slowing the real US economy. Those real forces are once again reasserting themselves. However, should Congress proceed with continued deep spending cuts in 2013, should the Euro economies, UK, and Japan continue to weaken, and should China-India-Brazil not succeed in reversing their economic slowdowns significantly—then the odds of a double dip in the US will rise still further in 2013-14, as this writer has repeatedly predicted.

The strategic question is ‘Why is the US economy so fragile and weak? Why has it been unable to generate a sustained economic recovery from ‘Epic’ recession since 2009? Why now, after five years since the onset of recession in late 2007, has the US economy stagnating and collapsed to virtually zero growth, once again?

The answers to this are not all that difficult to understand. First, despite $13 trillion in free, no interest money given to banks, investors, and speculators by the US federal reserve for five years now, the banks still continue to dribble out lending to small-medium US businesses. No loans mean no investment mean no hiring mean no income growth for consumption, which is 70% of the economy. Similarly, large non-bank corporations continue to sit on more than $2 trillion in cash. Like the banks, they too refuse largely to invest in the US to create jobs, preferring to hold the cash, or use it to buyback stock and pay shareholders more dividends, to invest it offshore, or to invest it in speculating with financial instruments like derivatives, foreign exchange, commodities futures, and the like.

At the same time, the bottom 80% of households, more than 110 million, are confronted with 5 years now of continuing real disposable income stagnation or decline. This income stagnation and decline translates into insufficient income to stimulate consumption spending, which makes up 71% of the US economy. What spending exists is fundamentally credit driven, not income driven. Thus car loans, student loans, credit cards, and installment loans rise and with it household ‘debt’. 

The problem with the US economy therefore is fundamentally twofold: not only insufficient income but growing household debt. Together they result in consumption becoming increasingly ‘fragile’ (an income to debt ratio term), and therefore unable to play its historic role of generating a sustained economic recovery. Together, fiscal-monetary policies are rendered increasingly ‘inelastic’ in generating recovery as ‘multipliers’ collapse—to use economic jargon. The outcome of all this is ‘stop go’ recoveries, bumping along the bottom, or what this writer has called an ‘epic’ recession.

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