Wonkblog: Yikes!

Chamber of Commerce JOBS

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a business advocacy group, has long opposed the administration response to the “Great Recession.” (Photo credit: vpickering)

The U.S. economy contracts for the first time since the “Great Recession,” but it isn’t all bad. Believe it or not, the news may actually be good.

I very much wanted to comment on the recent Commerce Department report detailing the U.S. economy’s fourth quarter contraction. I wanted to speak on its causes and consequences, explaining what it means for the United States and the world at-large. Believe it or not, it may actually be more good news than bad. But a family illness has unfortunately taken my time and attention, and to be honest, I couldn’t hope to give the matter justice.

Instead, the following article is adapted from the Washington Post‘s Wonkblog, a column dedicated to in-depth policy analysis. It summarizes the points I would have made far better than I could have hoped.

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The U.S. economy contracted slightly in the final months of 2012, as defense spending plummeted and businesses depleted their inventories, in a surprising development that could give hints of the economic challenges to come.

Wednesday afternoon, after completing their first policy meeting of the year, Federal Reserve leaders signaled that they saw the decline not as indicative of some bigger downturn in the economy. Evidence since their December meeting “suggests that growth in economic activity paused in recent months, in large part because of weather-related disruptions and other transitory factors,” the Federal Open Market Committee, the central bank’s policymaking group, said in a statement. The officials left their current policies in place, maintaining near-zero interest rates and a program of buying $85 billion in securities each month.

Gross domestic product — the market value of all final goods and services produced within a country’s borders — fell at a 0.1 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter, the Commerce Department said Wednesday, far below the 1.1 percent gain that analysts had forecast. The number will be revised extensively in the months ahead as more complete data becomes available, but if the number stays in negative territory, it would be the first contraction for the U.S. economy since the second quarter of 2009.

The good news is that the biggest factors in the decline aren’t expected to repeat themselves. Underlying growth in consumer and businesses spending was reasonably strong: Personal consumption expenditures rose at a 2.2 percent annual rate, while business spending on equipment and software rose at a gangbuster 12.4 percent rate. Housing continued a bull run, with residential investment rising at a 15.4 percent annual rate for its seventh straight quarter of expansion.

It was, said J.P. Morgan Chase economist Michael Feroli in a report, “a disconcerting headline number which masked better underlying performance of the economy.” Markets were little affected by the news, with the Standard & Poor’s 500 index down just 0.1 percent at 11:50 a.m.

Indeed, the contraction was caused by two overwhelming factors that suggest a one-off deviation from the larger positive trend.

First, federal defense spending fell at an astounding 22.2 percent annual rate in the quarter, which subtracted 1.28 percentage points from GDP growth. That was in part a reversal from the unusual 12.9 percent gain in the third quarter. But when the two quarters are averaged together, the defense sector was a drag on the economy in the second half of 2012 — and that’s before a “sequester” of automatic defense cuts goes into effect this year if Congress doesn’t act to avert it.

As government spending has taken a larger share of GDP, a sudden decline can have a disastrous effect on the national economy. It’s that possibility that has led the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to caution against the very austerity measures — substantial cuts to state spending — it once supported. In terms of the American austerity debate, the Bipartisan Police Center said that the GDP report was a serious warning of the kind of economic disruption that will occur if the sequester is allowed to go forward.

A drop in business inventories was the second major drag on growth. Firms drew down their inventories by more than $40 billion, which subtracted 1.25 percentage points from GDP growth. With companies focusing on selling goods already sitting on their store shelves and in their warehouses, production in the nation’s farms and factories was not as high as one might expect given consumer and business spending.

But businesses can’t simply run down their inventories forever, and that bodes well for future growth. Final sales, which add inventories back in, rose at a 1.15 percent rate.

A third and smaller factor in the contraction was a sharp decline in exports amid a slower world economy; trade subtracted 0.25 percentage points from the growth rate. Even as America recovers, its economic fortunes remain tied to the stability of global markets.

It was a bad quarter for the U.S. economy, but not nearly as bad as the overall negative number would suggest. Stalled military spending should resume once the twin threats of sequester and national debt default have passed. And depleted inventories should force business to jumpstart new production to meet rising demand. If it all plays out as hoped, these latest figures may eventually be something of a blessing in disguise.

It’s a similar situation with employment. Numbers released Friday show that the U.S. economy added 157,000 jobs in January, but the unemployment rate ticked up to 7.9%. So what gives? The way unemployment is calculated,  the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t count those who’ve given up looking for work. Recovery is bound to generate higher figures as the long-term unemployed return to the workforce, so it’s important to take a closer look at jobs reports released over the next several months.

GDP is the broadest measure of economic output, aiming to capture the value of goods and services produced within U.S. borders during a given time. The data over the last three years show an economy stuck in a pattern of steady growth that’s not strong enough to significantly push down unemployment nor weak enough to sink the nation into a new recession.

“Frankly,” said Paul Ashworth of Capital Economics, “this is the best looking contraction in GDP you’ll ever see. Stripping out defense and inventories, GDP growth accelerated to 2.6%, from 1.8%.” Undeterred by Wednesday’s report, economists believe America’s recover remains on track.

Still, there are reasons for concern in 2013: while consumer spending held up in the final months of 2012, that was before the payroll tax break expired in January, siphoning income from workers’ paychecks. And if negotiations over the sequester force steep cuts in defense and other government spending in the months ahead, GDP could suffer a steeper decline. In that sense, the portrait painted by the new numbers, of a private sector holding up but counterbalanced by a contracting public sector, may be an indicator of the new normal.

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