David Rosenberg rains on the GDP parade:
Never before did a gap between a 3.2% consensus GDP forecast and an actual print of 3.5% manage to elicit so much excitement in the equity market. It just goes to show how speculative the stock market has become. The question is why it is that the economy couldn’t do even better?
Historically, the auto sector adds 0.1 percentage point or 0.2 percentage point to any given GDP report. In the third quarter, courtesy of cash-for-clunkers, the sector added 1.7 percentage points to the headline figure, which is less a than 1-in-10 event in terms of probabilities. Tack on the rebound in housing and government spending and the areas of GDP that received the most medication from public sector stimulus contributed almost all of the growth in the economy. You read this right. If not for all the government incursion into the economy in Q3, real GDP basically would have stagnated.
Because of the housing and auto subsidies, the personal savings rate plunged to 3.3% in Q3 from 4.9% in Q2 — in the past quarter-century, there have been only four other times that the savings rate went down so much in one quarter. If not for that plunge in savings, real GDP actually would have contracted fractionally last quarter. The entire GDP growth was funded by a rundown in the savings rate that occurs less than 5% of the time.
Moreover, what is normal in that first positive post-recession GDP release is a 5% annual rate of growth. That puts 3.5% in Q3 into a certain perspective, especially when you consider the massive amount of stimulus that underpinned the latest batch of data.
The parts of the economy that did not receive government support didn’t fare too well in the third quarter. For example, total business spending (on structures, equipment and machinery) actually contracted at a 2.1% annual rate — the fifth decline in a row. State and local government spending also fell at a 1.1% annual rate. Since there was no cash-for-clothing program, spending on apparel slipped at a 1.5% annual rate. The economists had all been talking about an inventory cycle taking hold and yet there was an additional $130 billion of de-stocking in the third quarter.
The question has to be asked, if companies, both non-financial and financial, are big believers in this new post-recession V-shaped recovery that seems to have the hedge funds and most strategists excited, why are companies still cutting back in capital expenditures and inventories and why are banks still cutting back on lending at an unprecedented 15% annual rate.
While it seems very flashy, 3.5% growth is far from a trend-setter. Let’s go back to Japan. Since 1990, it has enjoyed no fewer than 19 of these 3.5%-or-better GDP growth quarters. That is almost 25% of the time, by the way. And we know with hindsight that this was noise around the fundamental downtrend because the Japanese economy has experienced four recessions and the equity market is down more than 70% from the peak. What is important for the future is whether the U.S. economy can manage to sustain that 3.5% growth performance in the absence of ongoing massive government stimulus. In other words, it may be a little early to uncork the champagne.
From our lens, the big risk going into Q4 is a renewed contraction in real final sales. That is not priced into the various asset classes right now.
Source: Gluskin Sheff
Mr. Roche is the Founder and Chief Investment Officer of Discipline Funds.Discipline Funds is a low fee financial advisory firm with a focus on helping people be more disciplined with their finances.
He is also the author of Pragmatic Capitalism: What Every Investor Needs to Understand About Money and Finance, Understanding the Modern Monetary System and Understanding Modern Portfolio Construction.