Here’s how badly the latest figures on U.S. economic growth (for the first quarter of this year) have been misunderstood: Even the Trump administration, which has displayed no hesitation to take credit for good economic news even when undeserved, failed to note a big possible silver lining.
As noted in last week’s coverage of these figures on gross domestic product (GDP), the inflation-adjusted growth figure reported by the Commerce Department in its initial read for the first quarter was a measly 0.69 percent. That’s the worst such performance since the 1.19 percent annualized contraction in the first quarter of 2014.
So it’s not entirely surprising that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross seized on this discouraging news to emphasize that “We need the President’s tax plan, regulatory relief, trade renegotiations and the unleashing of American energy sector to overcome the dismal economy inherited by the Trump Administration. Business and consumer sentiment is strong, but both must be released from the regulatory and tax shackles constraining economic growth.”
But especially given the rise in sentiment noted by Ross, it’s at least somewhat surprising that he didn’t make more of the strong rise in business spending revealed in the new GDP report. For it lends significant support to President Trump’s claim that his election is already liberated many of the “animal spirits” – i.e., a surge in business optimism – often needed to spur more hiring and especially more corporate spending on new plant and equipment.
For example, in absolute terms, such business spending rose sequentially by 9.1 percent at an annualized rate in the first quarter. That’s the fastest rate since the fourth quarter of 2013, when it jumped by 9.2 percent.
At the same time, back at the end of 2013, the economy expanded at a 3.90 percent real annual rate. In the first quarter of this year, after-inflation growth was only 0.69 percent annualized. So business spending punched far above its weight as a growth engine. As RealityChek regulars know, that’s an encouraging indication that the nation’s growth recipe is becoming more production oriented, and therefore healthier and more sustainable in the long run.
In fact, higher business spending accounted for all of the first quarter’s growth. (Other sectors of the economy contributed to and subtracted from the overall result, too, but their net effect was zero.) As a result, its relative contribution to expansion was its strongest since the first quarter of 2014, when such investment boosted real GDP by 0.84 percentage points but the economy actually contracted at a 1.19 percent annual rate.
And on a standstill basis, business investment in the first quarter represented its highest share of real GDP (13.34 percent) since the third quarter of 2015 (13.48 percent).
Not that one quarter’s results – which will be revised twice more in the next two months alone – are anywhere close to definitive. But the Trump administration had much more to crow about than it seemed to realize.
At the same time, the new GDP data showed that the economy remains way too personal consumption- and housing-heavy – the toxic combination whose bloat so powerfully inflated the bubbles that produced the previous decade’s global financial crisis.
As previously reported on RealityChek, at their pre-crisis peak, in the second quarter of 2005, the combined consumption and housing share of real GDP hit 73.27 percent. The comparable first quarter total was 73 percent even – not much lower. And that share was up slightly from the fourth quarter’s 72.95 percent.
So the United States is still a long way from achieving former President Obama’s goal of creating “an economy that’s built to last.” But from what we know of the first quarter’s growth this year, the economy made some progress that’s worth noting.
P.S. Partial credit for this post goes to CNBC’s Jeff Cox, whose report here first called my attention to the good business spending results.