Economic False Positives


A first look at US third quarter 2013 GDP and October Jobs Reports gives the impression that the US economy is mending and might soon begin to recover. But a closer inspection shows that the reports indicate an economy still mired in a ‘stop-go’ trajectory at best and a jobs market able to produce low pay, often contingent service jobs.  Moreover, trends within the reports suggest even the already tepid results in the reports will likely wane, once again, in the coming quarter and months. Here’s why.

US 3rd Quarter GDP Report

The official, preliminary GDP numbers for July-September indicate a 2.8% US growth rate.  The truth is always in the details, however. And a closer look at the composition and trends within GDP are nowhere near so rosy.

First and most important, no less than 0.71 of that 2.8% is due to what is called inventory accumulation by nonfarm businesses, which rose more than twice as fast as the 0.30 in the second quarter 2013 following a mere 0.06% in the first quarter.  In other words, businesses have been accelerating their stocking up of goods in anticipation of a subsequent rise in consumer household spending in the U.S. However, as indicated below, that spending is decelerating rapidly—not rising—and along several fronts.

It would not be the first time in the past few years that businesses falsely anticipated the take off of consumer spending and ramped up prematurely, only to have to contract just as dramatically when spending did not materialize.

In early 2012 a similar scenario occurred. Business inventory accumulation surged, adding significantly to GDP, then collapsed. After gains in inventory spending contributing 0.91 to GDP in the 3rd quarter 2012, last year, the same inventory spending collapsed in the final quarter of 2012, subtracting a full -2.09 from GDP. Fourth quarter 2012 US GDP in turn collapsed to a mere 0.1% growth rate. Thereafter, businesses began once again this past spring in building inventories in anticipation, yet again, a surge in consumer spending to occur this current 4th quarter 2013—once again a ‘surge’ that does not appear will take place.

Another problem with the recent 2.8% GDP 3rd quarter 2013 number is that it reflects a major redefinition of what constitutes GDP that was introduced this past July 2013 by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the US agency responsible for GDP reporting.  In that change and redefinition, the BEA added for the first time business Research & Development costs to the business investment contribution to GDP.  In other words, ‘costs’ not ‘output’, as previously has always been the case, now contribute to GDP. This was clearly one way to artificially raise what has been a declining trend in US business investment in the US for the past decade. Applying the redefinition retroactively, this GDP redefinition added no less than $550 billion to 2012 GDP last year. And for the most recent quarter, it added further to US GDP’s 2.8% rate. R&D contribution to US GDP is currently running at more than $280 billion for the year.  That ‘redefinition and cost’ compares to an estimate of $292 billion for all software contribution to US GDP this year; and more than the investment contribution for all transport equipment or all industrial equipment to US GDP this year.  It is not an insignificant sum, in other words. But it is ‘adding’ artificially to the 2.8% US GDP recent numbers.

Eliminate the excessive .71 contribution of inventories that will almost certainly contract this fourth quarter, and the artificial addition to GDP from R&D ‘costs’, the actual longer term trend in GDP in the 3rd quarter is about 1.8%–not 2.8%.  That’s about the longer term average of US GDP growth annually for the past two years.  In other words, the economy is growing no faster than it has in the past, a rate that is about half what it should be at this point nearly five years after the end of the recession in 2009.

But the 3rd Quarter GDP numbers are notable as well for other weak trends within the general number.  First, it appears that spending on services has nearly come to a halt.  After contributing 0.69 and 0.53 to GDP rates in the first and second quarters of 2013, respectively, services spending collapsed to only 0.05% in the 3rd quarter. Other warning signs of questionable consumer spending going forward are also now beginning to appear as well. Consumer confidence has plunged. The largest segment of consumer spending, retail sales, fell 0.1% in September, following one of the worst ‘back to school’ shopping seasons that  “ended on a sour note, raising concerns about the holidays”, according to the Wall St. Journal. Imminent cuts of billions of dollars in food stamps recently approved by Congress will take a further toll on consumer spending essentials in the near future, as will the 6-day shorter holiday shopping season for this year. Both wholesale and consumer prices continue to decelerate to 1% or less, also an indicator of soft sales and demand by consumers. In short, it is not likely consumer spending will rebound significantly this fourth quarter, prompting in turn the sharp reduction in business inventory spending noted above.

Added to this will be a continued decline in government spending at the federal level, as the sequestered spending cuts take an even deeper ‘bite’ out of the US economy. Both Defense and Non-defense spending has been reducing GDP every quarter since the beginning of 2013. This will not only continue, but will now accelerate in the 2013-14 fiscal budget year.

Finally, on the manufacturing and construction side of the economy, which represents about 20% of total GDP, recent growth in new residential housing construction will likely decline.  The recent US ‘housing recovery’ is now over, with rising interest rates and prices. US homebuilders are beginning to recognize this and are now reducing their output, and thus future contribution to GDP from this sector.

The contribution of manufacturing and exports to US GDP growth longer term is also fading. In the 3rd quarter, net exports added to GDP despite slowing exports because imports declined faster than exports.  What was a US brief export sales advantage for a while in 2013 is in decline, as the Eurozone economy takes action to lower its exchange rate and thus boost their exports and as China quickly moves back to an ‘export-driven’ GDP in recent months after having tested the waters, and retreated, from a shift to more internal consumption driven growth. The imminent shift by the US federal reserve bank toward a ‘taper’ monetary policy in coming months will also result in higher US interest rates (further slowing housing and auto sales) and a related rising dollar (further slowing export sales).

The recent 2.8% US GDP for the third quarter is therefore a ‘false positive’ in terms of where the US economy, and economic growth, may be headed this coming 4th quarter and longer term.

US October Jobs Report

Last month’s Jobs report is a reflection of US third quarter GDP.  The reported increase of 204,000 jobs in October at first glance appears a positive development. At least that number is needed to start reducing the unemployment rate.  However, that rate actually rose last month. The reason is a whopping 700,000 more workers left the labor force.  That huge number leaving the labor force is a strong indicator of severe weakness in the US labor markets, not strength. It means hundreds of thousands more in just one month have given up finding work because they can’t.

The composition of the hiring is also disturbing. 44,000 new hires in the retail sector. 53,000 in leisure & hospitality. And 52,000 in business services. The first two are typically overwhelmingly part time employment, as is a good part of the third as well.  No doubt concerned with the weak August-September retail sales results, retail has begun hiring part timers even earlier than in previous years. Leisure and hospitality (restaurants, hotels, etc.) have also continued to hire, again typically part time.  The hiring of part time, or ‘contingent’, labor is a major trend of this past year—when in the first half of 2013 more than 600,000 of the 900,000 newly hired were in fact ‘contingent’ (part time and temp jobs). That means low paid and service jobs, without benefits as a rule.  That also means slow to stagnant income growth from job creation—the most important source of disposable income growth necessary for sustained consumer spending.

While wage increases for the past year are reported as 1.8%, it is important to note that this rate is for full time workers only.  It does not reflect the lower pay received by part time workers, which have been the bulk of jobs created over the past year.  When adjusted, wages are stagnant at best or falling for production and supervisory workers as a whole, full and part time and temp.  It is not surprising, therefore, that median family (aka working class) disposable incomes continue to fall this year, as they have in four preceding consecutive years.  That is not a foundation for future consumption increases.  To date, consumption spending has risen even tepidly due to the growing use of consumer credit—cards, student loans, and auto and mortgage refinancing loans. Recently, credit card usage has slowed, however.  Consumer spending has also been boosted by the wealthiest 10% households, who spend largely on performance of stock and bond markets that have been surging to record levels.  Stocks and credit cards are not a basis for true household spending recovery; jobs and real income growth are the key but neither appear will contribute much in coming months.

Finally, contingent job growth—and especially in retail and hospitality both highly dependent on holiday spending—can ‘disappear’ quickly from the economy, and may in fact do so by December should consumer spending come in well below expectations. Meanwhile, the federal government continues to reduce spending and shed jobs, and may even do so at a faster rate early next year should the ‘sequester’ spending cuts not be reversed and Congress take an even deeper bite out of social security and medicare spending in 2014.

To summarize, the 2.8% GDP for the 3rd quarter, and the October 2013 jobs report, are nothing to get excited about.  They represent temporary adjustments to an otherwise stagnant at best US economy performance and a jobs creation record barely absorbing new entrants into the labor force and doing so at a sub-standard pay rate.

Dr. Jack Rasmus is the author of the book, “Obama’s Economy: Recovery for the Few”, published by Pluto Press, London, April 2012. He is the host of the weekly internet radio show from New York, ‘Alternative Visions’, on the Progressive Radio Network, prn.fm. His website is www.kyklosproductions.com and he blogs at jackrasmus.com. His twitter handle is drjackrasmus.    



Jack Rasmus is the author of  ‘Systemic Fragility in the Global Economy’, Clarity Press, 2015. He blogs at jackrasmus.com. His website is www.kyklosproductions.com and twitter handle, @drjackrasmus.

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