Tepid 1st Quarter Growth Disappoints

The American economy grew less than expected during the 1st quarter as the biggest gain in consumer spending in more than a year failed to overcome a diminished contribution from business inventories.  Gross domestic product rose at a 2.2 percent annual rate after a three percent increase in the 4th quarter of 2011, according to Department of Commerce Department statistics.  The median forecast called for a 2.5 percent increase.  Household purchases rose 2.9 percent, exceeding the most positive projection.  Home building grew at its fastest pace in almost two years.  The GDP data confirm the view of Federal Reserve officials who expect “moderate” growth as they repeated that borrowing costs are likely to stay low at least through late 2014.

In addition to the improvement in consumer purchases and home building, the economy benefited from a rise in auto production.  The GDP was negatively impacted by a drop in government spending and slower growth in business investment.  The United States is faring better than some other major economies.  The United Kingdom is in the throes of its first double-dip recession since the 1970s.  In Japan and Germany, GDP declined in the final three months of 2011, while China’s economy, the world’s second-largest, is also cooling.

“Consumers are remarkably stable and steady,” said Julia Coronado, chief economist for North America at BNP Paribas in New York.  “We’ll need to see final demand continue to improve.  We’re still in muddling-along territory.”

According to MarketWatch, the devil is in the details. “Growth of 2.2 percent is mediocre, but it’s worse than that once you peel away a few layers — about a fourth of the growth in gross domestic product was accounted for by a build-up in inventories, and half of it came from the building and selling of motor vehicles.  Strip away the inventory growth, and final sales in the economy increased 1.6 percent, the 4th quarter in the past five that was below two percent.  Although all the headlines report on the GDP numbers, the number to watch is final sales, because that gauges demand for our products, not merely how much we made.  Away from King Consumer, the rest of the economy is slowing.  Business investment spending dropped 2.1 percent, the first decline since 2009.  Let’s not get carried away too much by the gloom and doom.  The economy IS growing, even if it’s not as fast as we’d like.  The economy has grown by nearly seven percent since depths of the recession in 2009.”

As disappointing as the 2.2 percent is, the market will have to learn to live with lowered expectations.  From a market perspective, lukewarm growth could force Ben Bernanke’s hand to unfreeze lending, keep interest rates at their current lows, or re-use other monetary policy tools to keep money flowing.  Ironically, even with the Fed’s relaxed monetary policy, most of the extra cash in the economy remains on corporate balance sheets (Apple has billions on hand) or is going into the securities markets.

Official reaction was as expected. “Today’s advance estimate indicates that the economy posted its 11th straight quarter of positive growth, as real GDP (the total amount of goods and services produced in the country) grew at a 2.2 percent annual rate in the first quarter of this year.  While the continued expansion of the economy is encouraging, additional growth is needed to replace the jobs lost in the deep recession that began at the end of 2007,” said Alan Krueger, chairman of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Fed chairman Ben Bernanke called the slow pace of recovery “frustrating. Here we are almost three years from the beginning of the expansion, and the unemployment rate is still over eight percent.  It’s been a very long slog.  And that, I think, would be the single most concerning thing,” he said.

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