Last Friday’s report from the government on America’s economic growth generally was hailed by the conventional wisdom both for beating most economists’ expectations, and for breaking a two-year string of absolutely dismal advances in the price-adjusted gross domestic product (GDP) during the first quarter of the year. (Actually, three of the previous four first quarters saw lousy GDP reads, including 2014’s dip in the country’s real production of goods and services).
I see an additional reason for liking the 2.30 percent annualized figure: This first estimate showed that first quarter growth was considerably healthier than the American pattern during the current economic recovery.
As known by RealityChek regulars, this expansion, which began in the middle of 2009, is one of the longest on record. But in addition to growth being notably weak, it’s been largely driven by the same dangerous engines that inflated the credit bubble of the previous decade – whose bursting of course led to a frightening global financial crisis and the worst U.S. economic slump since the Great Depression of the 1930s. More specifically, growth has relied heavily on personal consumption and housing, which I’ve called the “toxic combination.”
On a standstill basis, the new figures show that the economy’s make-up is only slightly less dominated by these two components of the GDP than it was at the height of the bubble decade. As of the first quarter, personal consumption and housing combined accounted for 72.89 percent of real GDP, not too far short of the record of 73.27 percent that was hit in the third quarter of 2005.
At the same time, this share was lower than the 73.12 percent of the fourth quarter of last year, and is the second lowest since the third quarter of 2016 (72.71 percent).
Especially encouraging in this regard were the personal consumption results. Quarter-to-quarter, it fell from 69.62 percent of the inflation-adjusted economy (an all-time high) to 69.41 percent – the very lowest since that third quarter of 2016 (69.25 percent).
As for personal consumption’s growth role, the new numbers reveal that it made its smallest relative contribution to real GDP expansion in the first quarter (0.73 percentage points – or 31.74 percent – of 2.30 percent annualized growth) since the second quarter of 2012 (0.45 percentage points – or 2406 percent – of 1.87 percent annualized growth).
And partly as a result, a much better guarantor of healthy growth – business spending – made its best contribution to the real GDP’s advance in the first quarter in more than a year. Non-residential fixed investment fueled 0.76 percentage points (33.04 percent) of that 2.30 percent annual first quarter growth. In the first quarter of 2017, such business spending’s contribution was much bigger (71.66 percent). But annualized growth was only 1.23 percent.
What about housing? Its share of real GDP has fluctuated in a pretty narrow range over the last year or so – between 3.42 percent and 3.58 percent. But this share is so much smaller than that of personal consumption, and has stayed so much lower than during the bubble decade (when it peaked at 6.17 percent in the second quarter of 2005), that it’s just not moving the growth quality needle much.
There’s no guarantee that this mildly encouraging trend will continue. In fact, many prominent observers argue that personal consumption in the first quarter was simply taking a breather after a torrid fourth quarter of 2017, and expect a rebound to show up in the second quarter figures. But more consumer spending wouldn’t necessarily be bad for the American economy – provided that the healthy growth engines, like business spending (and better trade performances) aren’t once again completely lost in the shuffle.