The Surge in Imports and the Drop in GDP: Offloading the Ships Lined Up Offshore

Cargo freighter, Columbia River. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Many people were struck by the 1.4 percent drop in GDP in the first quarter, with some reports suggesting this was the beginning of a recession. This is not the real story of the first quarter GDP, instead it looks like growth is continuing at a healthy rate. To understand this point, it is important to recognize how imports are counted in GDP, since the increase in imports subtracted 2.53 percentage points from GDP growth in the quarter.[1]

Imagine that the sum of consumption spending, investment, and government spending increased at 2.7 percent annual rate in the quarter (which they did). Now suppose that we offloaded $60 billion of goods from boats sitting offshore, increasing our imports by this amount. On an annual basis, this additional $60 billion in imports would be $240 billion, or roughly 1.0 percent of GDP. This would reduce GDP by this amount, even though our purchases for consumption, investment, and the government had not changed.

Okay, that story is not exactly right. The goods that we offloaded from the ships are now sitting in warehouses at the ports or on their way to the retail outlets where they will eventually be sold. This increase in inventories would raise GDP by an amount equal to the growth in imports, offsetting the drag that imports otherwise would have been on growth. However, inventories were actually a drag on growth in the quarter, subtracting 0.84 percentage points from GDP.

These two facts can be reconciled by looking at the actual amount that inventories increased in the first quarter. The report showed that inventories increased at a $158.7 billion annual rate. (Non-farm inventories rose at an even more rapid $185.3 billion annual rate. Farm inventories shrank at a $35.8 billion rate, continuing a pattern that has been going on for sixteen years, but that is another story.)

This is an extremely fast pace of inventory accumulation. By comparison, in the years of 2016-2018, three normal years of economic growth, inventory accumulation averaged $45 billion. The reason inventories were a negative factor in growth in the first quarter, in spite of this extraordinary rate of accumulation, is that inventories grew at an even more rapid $193.2 billion annual rate in the fourth quarter of 2021. That rise added 5.32 percentage points to the fourth quarter’s growth.

So how do we think about first quarter growth? It probably makes the most sense to focus on the measure of final demand to domestic purchasers, which rose at a very healthy 2.6 percent annual rate. This is measuring the growth in consumption, fixed investment, and government expenditures. If we want the fullest picture, we can combine the fourth quarter’s 6.9 percent growth rate with the first quarter’s 1.4 percent decline to get a 2.8 percent average growth rate for the last two quarters.

In addition to recognizing that the economy is still growing at very healthy pace, inventories have been largely rebuilt, in spite of supply chain problems. Real non-farm inventories at the end of the first quarter were just 0.1 percent below their pre-pandemic levels. (Farm inventories are now at just 53.0 percent of their level of 16 years ago.) This is a very positive sign, in that it should be mean that the prices of many items that rose sharply in the last year will be leveling off, and quite likely coming down.

In short, rather than being a bad report with a drop in GDP, this report is overwhelming good news. It shows that the main components of final demand, consumption, investment, and government expenditures, are growing at a healthy pace. And, it shows that inventories have been largely rebuilt, meaning that supply chain problems are being alleviated. Inflation is of course a problem, but this rise in inventories is exactly what we want to see if inflation is to be slowed.


[1] A drop in exports subtracted another 0.68 percentage points. This is likely also due to supply chain issues, as exporters can’t arrange for shipping containers.

This first appeared on Dean Baker’s Beat the Press blog.

Dean Baker is the senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC.