GDP: Even worse than it looks
Jan 30th 2009
America’s economy shrank sharply in the fourth quarter. There are few reasons for optimism
The original article appears here.
IT IS a measure of the prevailing gloom that the worst economic performance in 26 years could still be described as better than expected. Real gross domestic product fell at an annual rate of 3.8% in the fourth quarter, below the decline of 5% or more that many economists had anticipated.
However, there is precious little reason for optimism. Almost all the unexpected growth came from a small rise in business inventories. This is almost certainly because firms did not reduce production quickly enough to keep pace with slumping orders. To get inventories back in line, more production cuts in the current quarter are likely. Morgan Stanley had expected GDP to fall by 4.5% in the current quarter, but now thinks it will fall by 5.5%.
Other details are no less grim. Consumer spending sank at a 3.5% annual rate, similar to its third-quarter drop, despite a big rise in real after-tax income, thanks to the huge drop in petrol prices. Spending and incomes went in opposite directions because once-profligate consumers are now trying to save more. They put aside 2.9% of their income (after tax) in the fourth quarter, the highest rate since the beginning of 2002. They are doing so either by choice, because retirement savings have been devastated and they fear losing their jobs, or by necessity, because it has become so difficult to borrow.
Businesses are cutting back more savagely. Their investment sank by 19%, worse than any quarter in the 2001 recession which was, after all, a business investment-led slump. And that was despite some firms boosting spending to exploit a temporary tax benefit that expired at the end of the year.
Both exports and imports fell sharply, leaving no net impact on GDP (lower imports raise the calculation of GDP, while lower exports reduce it). Matters are likely to get worse. The dollar has strengthened in recent months and much of the rest of the world is in worse shape than America. According to JPMorgan, the economy in Britain probably shrank at an annual rate of 5.9% in the fourth quarter, the euro-area by 5%, and Japan by a heart-stopping 9%, in a country with no housing bubble or banking crisis.
If there is any silver lining, it is that while the recession was a year old in December, its first half was not especially deep: net GDP actually rose in the first half, and the downturn is actually a bit milder than the median post-war recession after 12 months. But the typical post-war recession was over (or close to it) by this point; this one is getting worse. Claims for unemployment insurance were high in January, sales of new homes slumped in December, and several big companies, most recently Starbucks, Boeing and Sprint Nextel, have announced thousands of job cuts.
Faint though it is, there is a glimmer of hope in financial markets: interest rates on short-term loans between banks and on longer-term corporate debt have fallen notably since the autumn, and there has been a flood of new bond issues. But that may simply be evidence that investors no longer expect a catastrophic wave of bankruptcies. It does not mean that either companies or consumers are about to open their wallets.
What could turn this around? Most recessions end as companies clear excess inventories and as households, with a boost from lower interest rates, release pent-up demand for cars and houses. This time is different. Tightened credit severely limits the ability of consumers and companies to spend even if they were so inclined.
More than usual, an end to this recession will depend on policy. Enormous hopes are riding on Barack Obama’s $819 billion stimulus package, which has passed the House of Representatives and is now being debated in the Senate. Of that sum, just $170 billion will find its way into the economy before this fiscal year ends on September 30th, largely in the form of expanded unemployment insurance benefits and reduced income tax which will make their mark within months. But most of the impact will be next year because infrastructure funds, even once the money is available, takes a long time to be spent as federal, state and local governments secure the necessary approvals and seek bids for the work. “Even ‘shovel ready’ projects will not need shovels for some time,” notes Economics from Washington, a consultancy.
Still, the package will help. The Congressional Budget Office thinks that GDP by the end of 2009 will be between 1.3% and 3.6% higher than it otherwise would have been, thanks to the stimulus. It had thought that the unemployment rate would rise from 7.2% in December to 9% by the end of this year; with the stimulus in place, it thinks it will only rise to between 7.9% and 8.6%.
But more must be done. “The real problem is a feedback loop from the economy to credit losses,” says Richard Berner of Morgan Stanley. The fiscal stimulus will achieve little until that is fixed. Thus the administration’s real work lies ahead: coming up with a bigger and more comprehensive plan for recapitalising banks and relieving them of bad loans.