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5 Key Takeaways from Yesterday’s Weak GDP Report

Some good summarizing thoughts here from Consumer Metrics Institute:

— As detailed above, the contraction was driven primarily by dramatic (but not unexpected) reversals to the one-quarter spikes in government spending and inventory growth, which sharply (and conveniently) improved the headline number just prior to the November election. At best both of those one-quarter binges simply brought zero-sum economic activity forward by a quarter, and at worse we will see both of these surges later treated as data anomalies that disappear in future revisions.

— For those of us who follow these numbers closely (and perhaps foolishly try to make some longer-term sense of them), the inexplicable economic surge reported for the third quarter has now at least reversed, and the general weakening pattern previously recorded for 2012 seems to have been confirmed.

— The consumer data was actually a modest bright spot. Per-capita disposable income increased substantially, as did personal consumption expenditures for both goods and services. Similarly commercial fixed investment expenditures improved.
But there are several longer term issues with the data:

— We have mentioned before that the BEA is notoriously poor at recording turning points in the economy in “real time.” The first quarter of 2008 was a classic example, initially being reported in “real time” as yet another quarter of sustained growth before being revised downward several times over some 40 months to become the first quarter of contraction leading into what we now call the “Great Recession.” We fully expect that ultimately the surprising economic upturn seen in the 3Q-2012 data will largely vanish in future revisions.

— And in truth it is hard to look at these new numbers without at least some cynical thoughts about the reported numbers for the prior quarter. We were frankly astonished when the final numbers for the third quarter came in at a 3.09% “full recovery” growth rate, driven largely by unexplained increases in Federal spending, particularly in the Department of Defense (DOD) — the timing of which was completely controlled by an Administration in serious need of positive pre-election economic headlines. The annualized rates of growth for defense spending rose to over 15% in 3Q-2012, only to magically reverse to a -15% annualized contraction rate in 4Q-2012 — after the polls had closed.

To that last point: arguably the DOD was simply moving materiel acquisitions forward in anticipation/avoidance of “fiscal cliff” sequesters, with the economic impact of the contracting binge a mere side effect of bureaucratic hoarding. We should all hope that the context of any such timing shenanigans were more budgetary than political in nature.

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