In Downside Surprise, Real GDP Barely Grew at All Last Quarter

April 30th, 2014 at 9:21 am

I’ll get into the weeds later in the day, but here’s a bit of a shocker: real GDP grew only 0.1% in the first quarter of the year, according to this morning’s report from the Commerce Dept.  That’s a huge deceleration from last quarter’s 2.6%, and well below analysts expectations of around 1.2%.

Remember, that 0.1% is an annualized number–the actual, quarterly percent growth of GDP was 0.03%, meaning that the real level of the value of goods and services in the US economy was essentially unchanged in the first three months of the year.  That’s unusual and alarming, if it’s correct.

However, given the jumpiness in the quarterly estimates, and this is the first of three estimates, based on preliminary data, it’s important to look at year-over-year results as well, to smooth out some noise, including recent weather effects.  By that measure, real GDP is up 2.3%, a deceleration from last quarter’s 2.6%.  In that regard, look at this quarter’s number as a stern warning, one that may or may not herald a downshift in GDP growth, but one that is hopefully not indicative of the underlying trend.

–Consumer spending wasn’t the culprit, as it rose 3% and contributed 2 points to to the final growth number (increased spending from health care reform has been a factor here in recent quarters; likely more a Medicaid expansion story than premium subsidies at this point).

–Investment, on the other hand, was a big negative and subtracted 1 point from q1 growth.  Businesses reduced their equipment investment which fell 5.5%, the largest pullback in almost five years.  The recent softening of the housing market can be seen here as well: home building, another component of investment, fell for the second quarter in a row.

–The trade deficit was also a drag on growth, as exports added 0.24 points to growth but exports subtracted about 1 point, for a net drag of -0.83.

–As has been the case in five of the past six quarters, government spending was also a drag on growth, in this case, due to cutbacks at the state and local level.

–As expected given recent bulking up, additions to inventory also slowed.

–Core PCE prices were up 1.3% and the more reliable yearly growth was only 1.1%.  It is notable that the Fed’s FOMC, already a bit worried about disinflation, is meeting as we speak.  I’m quite sure they won’t change course based on this one report–they’ll still reduce QE by another $10bn–but they’ll likely note this development in their statement.

Take out the negative net exports and the inventories, and you get final domestic demand up 1.5% over the quarter, but that’s just a bit of lipstick on this fundamentally weak report.

As noted, there’s a lot of preliminary data in here and one bad report doesn’t immediately shift the longer term trend, as per the year/year rates cited above.  But I and others have consistently warned about seeing “green shoots” before their time, and this GDP report is a reminder of the important caveat.  As much as we’d like it to be otherwise, the US economy is clearly not yet out of the sloggy-growth woods.

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4 comments in reply to "In Downside Surprise, Real GDP Barely Grew at All Last Quarter"

  1. Tyler says:

    Gee, I wonder if a payroll tax cut, or a federal income tax cut for the middle class, would raise consumer spending.

  2. GDP Nosedives | The Penn Ave Post says:

    […] at 12:31 on April 30, 2014 by Andrew Sullivan Jared Bernstein reacts to the new Commerce report: [R]eal GDP grew only 0.1% in the first quarter of the year, according […]

  3. Robert says:

    But why should we be at all hopeful that we WILL get out of the woods? There is no prospect for fiscal stimulus and monetary stimulus is “tapering.”

  4. jeff says:

    This is the new normal. And immigration is drying up too.

    It’s hilarious to see how defensive the New York Times article was about GDP PPP and China. Even though China will be larger in nominal GDP in a decade. The U.S. will no longer be #1 in the lifetime of the boomers.