The markets were hit with an unexpected twist last week. On Wednesday the Bureau of Economic Analysis shocked markets by announcing that U.S. Gross Domestic Product had declined by 0.1% in the fourth quarter.
That marked the first time economic output had fallen since the end of the Great Recession.
But the report wasn't all doom and gloom by any stretch of the imagination.
In fact, when you look at the report more closely there was a silver lining buried in the numbers: the decline was entirely caused by weakness in government spending and inventories.
Those are areas where bad is really good.
A Drop in Government Spending
The good news for those who value free markets and limited government is that government spending peaked three years ago, in the fourth quarter of 2009. Since then government outlays have declined 6.1%.
Of course, that's not nearly as exciting news as it sounds, because the BEA nets out "transfer payments" such as social security, unemployment insurance disability payments and food stamps, on the grounds that they are just payments from one entity to another, and affect GDP only when the money is finally spent. Needless to say, those payments have risen sharply in the last few years.
Still, a 6.1% decline in government spending on goods and services is worth celebrating as progress. About two thirds of the decline was in state and local governments with the remaining third in defense spending. Federal nondefense spending has risen slightly.
In the fourth quarter itself, a $10 billion decline in defense spending, was converted by the magic of annualization in the figures, to a 22% annual rate of decline, and a 1.3% decline in GDP growth.
However, here the GDP accounts get funny; that decline in government spending (good) is reflected as a decline in GDP (presumably bad).
If IBM hires another researcher for $100,000, who doesn't produce anything useful, there's no effect on GDP, because nothing is produced.
But if the Federal government hires one, GDP increases, even if he's useless. As you can see, GDP accounting was designed by a Keynesian big government-lover, Simon Kuznets (1901-1985).
Inventory accounting is equally fishy. In the fourth quarter, inventories increased by $20 billion at an annual rate ($5 billion in real money). However, in the third quarter inventories had increased by an annualized $60 billion (really $15 billion.) Thus since the rate of inventory pile-up had declined, inventory pile-up contributed minus 1.3% to GDP growth in the fourth quarter.
In the real world, we don't want too much inventory; it's a pure cost, and if it piles up too much, we know we will have to reduce it in the next quarter, reducing both GDP and actual hours worked in the factories producing goods.
Hence it makes more sense to take government and inventory out of the equation altogether. If we do that, the growth rate of private output, excluding inventory effects was 2.84% in the fourth quarter, compared to 2.25% in the previous quarter.
GDP is Picking Up Where it Counts
In other words, the recovery was far from stalling in the fourth quarter, with GDP actually accelerating.
There. Doesn't that make you feel more cheerful!
But it actually reflects better what was going on. In the summer, the recovery still felt tentative, but after Ben Bernanke's "stimulus" announced in September, it seemed to accelerate, in spite of problems with Sandy and the Fiscal Cliff.
To normal people, the fourth quarter felt better than the third quarter. That's what pushed the stock market up towards record levels and, let's face it,that may very well have been what re-elected President Obama – the Republican message of doom and gloom didn't feel credible by November.
There seems no reason why the fourth quarter's momentum in the "real" economy won't continue.
Weekly employment figures have continued to improve and the Chicago PMI climbed in January to its highest level in nine months. The markets have opened the year strong, and corporate earnings have come in above expectations as well.
As for the "special" factors, inventory growth is likely to continue in the first quarter, so that factor won't zap the reported GDP number.
As for the government, its main danger is the "sequester" due to kick in March 1, which removes $1 trillion in government spending over the next 10 years.
If that happened, it would indeed zap reported GDP, though more in the second quarter than the first, since only a month of sequester would be in the first quarter's figures.
However, wouldn't that in reality be a good thing??
It would reduce the budget deficit and free up more resources for the private sector. In the long run it would almost certainly be good for growth.
Now that we know how rigged the "official" GDP figures are, why do we care that it would zap reported GDP?
Sometimes, the government hides the bad stuff from the people. On this occasion, because of the way it calculates GDP, the government hid the good stuff.
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