GDP Growth in the Second Quarter of 2012: Even Slower

BEA release of 7/27/12. Seasonally adjusted annualized rates       Percent Growth Contribution to GDP      Growth
2011Q4 2012Q1 2012Q2 2011Q4 2012Q1 2012Q2
Total GDP 4.1 2.0 1.5 4.1 2.0 1.5
A.  Personal Consumption Expenditure 2.0 2.4 1.5 1.45 1.72 1.05
B.  Gross Private Fixed Investment 10.0 9.8 6.1 1.19 1.18 0.76
 1.  Non-Residential Fixed Investment 9.5 7.5 5.3 0.93 0.74 0.54
 2.  Residential Fixed Investment 12.1 20.5 9.7 0.26 0.43 0.22
C.  Change in Private Inventories nm* nm* nm* 2.53 -0.39 0.32
D.  Net Exports nm* nm* nm* -0.64 0.06 -0.31
E.  Government -2.2 -3.0 -1.4 -0.43 -0.60 -0.28
Memo:  Final Sales 1.5 2.4 1.2 1.52 2.38 1.23
    nm* = not meaningful
$ Value of Change in Private Inventories (2005 prices) $70.5b $56.9b $66.3b

The initial estimates for US GDP growth in the second quarter of 2012 were released by the BEA of the US Department of Commerce on July 27, and indicated that a slowly growing economy was growing even more slowly than before.  GDP growth of 4.1% in the last quarter of 2011 (based on revised figures issued on July 27 as well), had slowed to just 2.0% growth in the first quarter of 2012, and then to an estimated 1.5% growth in the second quarter.  The figures are subject to revision, but it is unlikely that the basic story will change significantly.

This slowdown in growth in 2012 had in fact been predicted on this blog in a posting on January 27, when the initial estimates for growth in the last quarter of 2011 were issued.  While growth at the end of 2011 was relatively robust, it was noted there that much of this had occurred due to an increase in private inventory accumulation.  As has been explained in an Econ 101 posting on this blog, it is the change in the change in private inventories which contributes to GDP growth, and that change in the change in private inventories had been large in the fourth quarter of 2011.  Using the figures from the current BEA estimates, the change in private inventories was essentially zero in the third quarter of 2011 (a fall of just $4.3 billion at 2005 prices), but then rose by $70.5 billion in the fourth quarter.  This increase by a net $74.8 billion added 2.53% points to GDP in the fourth quarter, accounting for over 60% of the now estimated 4.1% growth in that period.  Without this (that is, if inventory accumulation had been at the same pace as before), GDP growth would not have been 4.1% but only 1.5% in that period (the growth of final sales).  Since over time the pace of inventory accumulation is relatively steady on average, even though there can be significant swings in any given quarter, it was predicted that GDP growth could well slow in 2012.

That is what happened.  GDP growth slowed to a pace of just 2.0% in the first quarter of 2012 and to an initial estimate of just 1.5% in the second quarter.  There are many other changes going on of course, but the swings in the change in change in inventory accumulation can have a significant impact in any given quarter.  In the first quarter of 2012, the pace of inventory accumulation slowed to $56.9 billion.  This was still positive (inventories grew), but was a slower pace than the $70.5 billion accumulation in the fourth quarter of 2011.  That is, inventories were still growing at a fairly high rate in the first quarter of 2012, but by not as rapid a rate as they had in the last quarter of 2011, so this subtracted from GDP growth.  It subtracted 0.39% points from what GDP growth otherwise would have been (see the figure on Contribution to GDP Growth in the table above).  The initial estimate for the second quarter of 2012 is that private inventories grew by $66.3 billion, which was an increase from the $56.9 billion pace of the first quarter, and so contributed 0.32% points to GDP growth.  But will this continue?

Inventories are held only because of an expectation that the goods will be sold, and businesses do not wish to hold too much in inventories.  Inventory accumulation must be financed, and goods can deteriorate in value if not soon sold (this is especially the case for anything where technology changes rapidly, such as the latest electronic gadgets).  Rapid accumulation of inventories is indeed normally a sign that goods are not being sold as rapidly as the producers of these goods had expected, so a rapid rise in inventories is often a disturbing sign.  Production is still going on, and hence GDP is being generated, but a rapid accumulation of inventories will often then lead producers to cut back on production, and GDP growth will slow or even become negative.

This could happen now.  Private inventories have grown by a total of almost $200 billion in the last three quarters together (at constant prices of 2005), and have not grown by so much over a three quarter period since 2006.  Should producers decide to limit production so that total inventories stay where they are now in the next quarter (and succeed in doing this, as there is unpredictability in what sales will be), inventory accumulation will drop back to zero.  This is not unusual:  As noted above, inventory accumulation was essentially zero (in fact slightly negative) in the third quarter of 2011.  But if this happens, GDP growth would fall by 2.0% points (given the current pace of inventory accumulation) below what it would otherwise be, and could easily push GDP growth into negative territory.

Because of these swings in inventory accumulation from quarter to quarter, it is wise to look at what is happening to final sales.  This will often provide a better picture of what is happening in the basic underpinnings to short run growth.  As seen in the table above, final sales have grown at rates of 1.5%, 2.4%, and 1.2% in the most recent three quarters, respectively.  On average, GDP growth will tend to match these rates over time.  They show that the economy has been fundamentally weak over this period.

And the concerns are not just with what may happen to inventories.  Aside from inventory accumulation, the other elements making up GDP growth all show a weakening in the second quarter of 2012 compared to what their growth had been in the first quarter.  Private consumption expenditure only rose by 1.5% (at annualized rates) in the second quarter, compared to growth at a rate of 2.4% in the first quarter.  Private fixed investment only grew at a 6.1% rate, vs. a 9.8% rate in the first quarter.  Of this, non-residential fixed investment grew at a 5.3% rate vs 7.5% before, and residential fixed investment (a bright spot in the first quarter) slowed to a 9.7% rate of growth vs. 20.5% before.  Net exports (the net between exports and imports) subtracted from growth, and once again, government expenditure contracted and acted as a drag on growth.  As has been discussed before in this blog, if government expenditure had been allowed to grow during the Obama term by as much as it had during the same period under Reagan, the economy would likely now be at full employment.

There is therefore little to be encouraged by in these initial estimates for growth in the second quarter of 2012.  With Europe already in a double-dip recession, as they have foolishly pushed fiscal austerity policies despite their high unemployment, there is a good chance that US growth will slow to below 1%, and quite possibly even to something negative, in the second half of 2012.  Regardless of who should be blamed for this, it is likely that Obama will be the one blamed.