GDP Growth in the First Quarter of 2012: A Slow Economy Going Slower

BEA release of 4/27/12 2011 Q3 %growth 2011 Q4 %growth 2012 Q1 %growth Contribution to GDP growth in 2011 Q4 Contribution to GDP growth in 2012 Q1
Total GDP 1.8 3.0 2.2 3.0 2.2
A.  Personal Consumption Expenditure 1.7 2.1 2.9 1.47 2.04
B.  Gross Private Fixed Investment 13.0 6.3 1.4 0.78 0.18
   1.  Non-Residential Fixed Investment 15.7 5.2 -2.1 0.53 -0.22
   2.  Residential Fixed Investment 1.3 11.6 19.1 0.25 0.40
C.  Change in Private Inventories nm* nm* nm* 1.81 0.59
D.  Net Exports nm* nm* nm* -0.26 -0.01
E.  Government -0.1 -4.2 -3.0 -0.84 -0.60
   1.  Federal Government 2.1 -6.9 -5.6 -0.58 -0.46
   2.  State and Local Government -1.6 -2.2 -1.2 -0.26 -0.14
Memo:  Final Sales 3.2 1.1 1.6 1.15 1.61
        nm* = not meaningful
$ Value of Change in Private Inventories (2005 prices) -$2.0b $52.2b $69.5b

A.  Introduction

The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) of the Department of Commerce released this morning its first estimate of GDP growth in the first quarter of 2012.  The table above summarizes the key figures.  Overall, the report is disappointing.  Many observers were expecting GDP growth to accelerate, continuing the path of quarter by quarter increases seen during the course of 2011 (with growth rates of 0.4%, 1.3%, 1.8%, and 3.0%, in the first through the fourth quarters, respectively).  But readers of this blog may recall that I had warned of a real possibility of deceleration in a posting on January 27, when the BEA released its first estimate of growth in the fourth quarter of 2011.  That slowdown has happened.  So far the slowdown has been modest, and one should not put too much emphasis on one quarter’s figures.  But a deeper assessment of the numbers contained in the report suggests that growth could slow further in the next few quarters, in the period just before the Presidential election.  This is not good for Obama.

The table has a lot of numbers to give the full picture, but we will focus on a few.  The table is similar to the one I used in the January 27 posting noted above, although this time I have split out the Change in Private Inventories from other investment (i.e. from Fixed Investment), to give a clearer picture of the trends.  Note also that the figures for the fourth quarter of 2011 differ somewhat from those shown in the January 27 posting.  This is because the January figures were the initial estimates (the BEA calls them the “advance estimates”), which are then revised twice (and released in late February and then in late March).  The initial estimate for the fourth quarter of 2011 was that GDP rose by 2.8%.  Following the revised second and then third estimates (as more complete data became available), the GDP growth rate for the period is now estimated to have been 3.0%.  And there are small changes in a number of the other figures as well.  Similarly, the release today was the initial estimate for the first quarter of 2012, and revised estimates will be released in late May and then in late June, before the release in late July of the initial estimates for the second quarter.

B.  The Change in the Change in Private Inventories

It is best first to focus on what has happened to the Change in Private Inventories, as this can drive the short term dynamics of quarter to quarter GDP growth.  As was described in a posting in the Econ 101 section of this blog, it is the change in the change in private inventories which leads to a change in GDP (i.e. to GDP growth).  In the last line of the table above, I have shown what the actual (estimated) dollar value was of inventory accumulation (the change in private inventories), going back to the third quarter of 2011.  In that third quarter, the stock of inventories in fact fell a small amount, by $2.0 billion (in 2005 prices).  Inventories are then estimated to have grown by $52.2 billion in the fourth quarter, for a change in the change in private inventories of $54.4 billion.  This contributed 1.81% points of the 3.0% growth in GDP.  That is, fully 60% ( = 1.81 / 3.0 ) of the growth in the fourth quarter (based on the revised figures) is now estimated to have come from inventory accumulation.

In the first quarter of 2012, private inventories are estimated to have grown by even more than they did in the fourth quarter:  by $69.5 billion.  But even though inventory accumulation is now estimated to have been higher, the change in the change in inventories was only $17.3 billion ( = $69.5b – $52.2b).  Thus even though inventory accumulation was greater than in the fourth quarter of 2011, the contribution to the growth of GDP in the first quarter of 2012 was an estimated 0.59% points (vs. the 1.81% of the previous quarter) of the 2.2% growth, or about 27% ( = 0.59 / 2.2 ) of the growth in GDP.

Inventory accumulation thus continued to add to, rather than subtract from, overall GDP growth in the first quarter, but at a slower pace than in the fourth quarter.  Looking forward, inventory accumulation would need to grow further to $86.8 billion ( = $69.5b + $17.3b) for the change in the change in private inventories to continue at the same pace, and contribute approximately 0.6% points to growth.

But with high positive inventory growth for two quarters now, there is a good chance that producers will cut back on production so as not to add so much to inventories sitting on shelves.  If inventory accumulation even simply continues at the $69.5 billion pace of the first quarter, the change in the change in inventories will then be zero.  If all else in the economy continues to grow as it did in the first quarter (it won’t, but if it did), then the growth rate in the second quarter would be 2.2% – 0.6% points = 1.6% (which is the rate of final sales growth in the quarter; see the table above).

But inventory accumulation could be a good deal less than that.  A fall in the stock of inventories is not unusual.  From 2001Q1 through 2012Q1, for example (a period of 45 quarters), the change in private inventories was negative in 15 of the quarters (i.e. one-third of the time) and positive in 30.  Even if the change in private inventories was just zero, and not even negative, the change in the change in private inventories would then be a negative $69.5 billion from the pace in the first quarter.  This would subtract 2.4% points from GDP growth, and if all else grew at the pace it did in the first quarter, then GDP growth would be a negative 0.8% ( = 1.6% growth of final sales minus the 2.4% points).

There is a good chance, but no certainty, the pace of inventory accumulation will slow down.  If so, overall GDP growth would slow, and even possibly turn negative.  The economy remains weak.

C.  Personal Consumption and Fixed Investment

A positive in the figures is that household expenditures, for both personal consumption and for residential investment, continued to strengthen.  Personal consumption (which accounts for 71% of GDP), grew by 2.9% and accounted for 2.04% points of the 2.2% growth.  And residential fixed investment (mainly housing) grew at a very fast 19.1% pace, following the 11.6% growth of the fourth quarter.  These are strong figures, and suggest housing may be starting to recover.  However, as had been noted in the January 27 blog posting, residential fixed investment has fallen by so much in the crash of the housing bubble (to just 2.3% of GDP now, from a high of over 6% during the bubble, and a more normal 4% of GDP or so), that such investment would need to double to return to normal levels, or triple to get back to where it was before.  And with its current small share of GDP, the 19.1% growth of residential fixed investment only accounted for 0.40% points of the 2.2% GDP growth in the first quarter.

Offsetting this positive news on household consumption and investment, there was a decline in business (i.e. non-residential) fixed investment.  Business fixed investment had been strong earlier in the recovery, from early 2010 through to late 2011, but is estimated to have contracted by 2.1% in the first quarter.  This subtracted from GDP growth.  And with business fixed investment (at 10.3% of GDP currently) much larger than residential fixed investment, the declining growth of business fixed investment has pulled down overall fixed investment from a 13.0% rate of growth in the third quarter of 2011, to 6.3% in the fourth quarter, and to just 1.4% in the first quarter.

D.  Fiscal Drag Continues

Finally, and most stupidly in a still depressed economy with high unemployment, government expenditures are falling, acting as a drag bringing down the overall economy.  And while earlier this fiscal drag was mostly due to cuts in government expenditures at the state and local level, cuts in federal expenditures are now also pulling down the economy. Federal government expenditures on goods and services fell by 5.6% in the first quarter, following a fall now estimated at 6.9% in the fourth quarter.  State and local government expenditures continued to fall (as they have in 11 of the 13 quarters since the first quarter of 2009), but now federal expenditures are falling even faster.

The direct impact of the decline in government expenditures subtracted 0.6% points from what growth would otherwise have been in the first quarter.  That is, had government expenditures simply remained flat rather than fallen by 3.0% (for federal combined with state and local), GDP growth would have been 2.2% + 0.6% = 2.8%.  With a modest 3.0% growth (instead of a 3.0% cut) in government expenditures, growth in the first quarter would have been a more respectable 2.2% + 1.2% = 3.4%.  And assuming a multiplier of just 1.5, the growth rate would have been 2.2% + 1.5×1.2% = 4.0%.  While still modest, this would bring GDP growth closer to the rate needed for a sustained reduction in unemployment.  And as was noted in a previous posting on this blog, had government expenditures been allowed to grow at the pace it had during the economic downturn after 1981 during the Reagan years, the economy would now be at full employment.

Cutting government expenditures when the economy is so weak and unemployment so high only serves to further weaken the economy.  The consequences of an even more severe austerity program can be seen in the UK.  The Conservative Government in the UK has adopted an austerity program similar to what Republicans have pushed to be adopted here.  The new GDP report for the UK issued two days ago indicates that growth in the UK was negative in the first quarter of 2012, as it was in the fourth quarter of 2011.  The two quarters of negative growth meets the criterion normally used to define a recession, and hence the UK has now dropped back into recession for the second time since the 2008 crisis.

The US has fortunately not adopted an austerity program as severe as that adopted by the UK.  However, Republicans are pushing strongly for the US to do so.  If Obama did, the results would be similar to that seen in the UK.  If you are running for re-election, that is not a good place to be.  And that may explain why the Republicans have been pushing for it.