Thursday, October 27, 2011

More Contradictions in Third Quarter GDP


The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.

The Commerce Department reported today that third quarter GDP increased at a 2.5% annual rate. A supposedly much lower inflation rate created significant improvement over numbers from earlier in the year. There was also a surge in consumer and business spending reported, although other recent surveys contradict the claims in the GDP release.

Real personal consumption expenditures (consumer spending) increased by 2.4% compared to only 0.7% in the second quarter. Most of this was caused by a 4.1% increase in durable goods purchases. Nondurables were barely changed. Delayed auto and parts shipments from Japan because of disruption from the massive March earthquake can account for more sales being reported in the third quarter, but not likely to be repeated in the fourth. Despite claims of much higher consumer sales, businesses barely increased inventories in the third quarter — something they would do if they saw their sales climbing. Moreover, consumer confidence surveys indicate consumers were gloomy in the third quarter and readings have now fallen as low as they were around the bottom of the 2008/2009 Credit Crisis. Consumer confidence surveys are not controlled by the government and act as a check of the reliability on government statistics. 

While businesses didn't seem to notice any increase in customer spending, there was nevertheless a frenzy of equipment and software buying going on. This supposedly increased by 17.4% during the quarter. Apparently, I missed the all the news about major software upgrades and equipment innovations that took place this summer. Nonresidential structure spending was almost as buoyant increasing by 13.3%. Where this building boom is taking place isn't exactly clear. Coincidentally, the unemployment rate among U.S. construction workers is also 13.3% (See Household Data Table A-14 of the September Non-Farm Payrolls Report). As bad as this is, it is still a year over year improvement.

GDP figures are also boosted if the inflation rate is lower. It's a lot easier to report better inflation numbers — all it takes is some statistical adjustments — than it is to actually improve the economy. Inflation was supposedly 3.3% in the second quarter, but only 2.0% in the third quarter. Nominal GDP is reduced by the inflation rate to get the final figure. The change in inflation, whether or not it actually took place, added much of the improvement seen from the second to third quarter, not an increase in economic growth.

Mass media coverage about GPD was of course ebullient about what good shape the U.S. economy is in. Of course, we won't know the actual number for several more years. This report is only preliminary and there are two adjustments that will be made to it and then annual revisions every July. In the last several years, adjustments have been mostly down, sometimes by very significant amounts. Even then, that number is going to still be overstated because the U.S. consistently understates its inflation rate. To find an approximate level of the actual GDP, just subtract 3% from the reported number. This will give you a more accurate sense of what is going on in the economy. 

Disclosure: None

Daryl Montgomery
Author: "Inflation Investing - A Guide for the 2010s"
Organizer, New York Investing meetup

This posting is editorial opinion. There is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.