By Jason Simpkins
The U.S. economy contracted at a 6.3% annualized rate in the fourth quarter of 2008 – the sharpest decline in gross domestic product (GDP) in more than two decades, but still better than many analysts had expected.
The Bureau of Economic Analysis said last month that fourth-quarter GDP contracted at a 6.2% annual rate. Today's (Thursday) revision, while negative, was smaller than the 6.7% decline forecast by economists surveyed by MarketWatch.
The most notable revision came from inventories, where the small increase in stockpiles originally reported was adjusted to show a small decline.
"The real change in private inventories subtracted 0.11 percentage point from the fourth-quarter change in real GDP, after adding 0.84 percentage point to the third-quarter change," the BEA said in its statement. "Private businesses decreased inventories $25.8 billion in the fourth quarter, following a decrease of $29.6 billion in the third quarter and a decrease of $50.6 billion in the second."
However, the liquidation of inventories should be a positive factor going forward, because businesses will have fewer overstocks to reduce before they can resume production.
The price index for gross domestic purchases – which measures prices paid by U.S. residents – decreased 3.9% in the fourth quarter, increasing purchasing power for consumers and businesses.
The bright spots in the report were encouraging, but the bulk of the report was decidedly negative.
Consumer spending fell at a 4.3% pace, despite declining prices. And a weak overseas demand conspired with a resurgent dollar to drastically reduce exports. Exports, which helped keep GDP positive in the first two quarters of the recession early last year, fell 23.6% in the fourth quarter – the biggest drop since 1971. Imports were down 17.5%.
In current dollar terms, GDP fell 5.8% to an annual rate of $14.2 trillion – the largest percentage drop in nominal GDP since 1958, according to MarketWatch.
Analysts anticipate growth figures for the first quarter of 2009 to be equally as bad, if not worse as unemployment has continued to escalate.
In a separate report today, the Labor Department said that first-time claims for jobless benefits rose by 8,000 to 652,000 last week.
About 4.4 million U.S. jobs have been lost since the recession began in December 2007, with almost half of those losses coming in the last three months alone, including the largest monthly drop in six decades in December.
"All the incoming data suggest that the economy will contract by a staggering 7% to 8% in the first quarter, before the economy begins to stabilize," Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS Global Insight Inc., told the Financial Times.
Since 1947, never has GDP fallen by more than 4% in two consecutive quarters.
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Bureau of Economic Analysis:
GROSS DOMESTIC PRODUCT: FOURTH QUARTER 2008 (Final)
GDP revision shows 6.3% decline in fourth quarter
US economy falls 6.3% in fourth quarter