Today’s U.S. government report on the shrinkage of the American gross domestic product (GDP) in the first quarter of the year is fascinating not because it can provide any idea about how bad the CCP Virus-induced economic downturn is right now, much less how bad it will get. Instead, it’s fascinating because it provides (and confirms) some insights on which sectors of the economy have been the biggest winners and losers, and which could fare best and worst going forward.
First, a vitally important explanatory point: When you read that the economy contracted by 4.8 percent between the last three months of 2019 and the first three months of 2020 after factoring in inflation, remember that this figure is an annualized figure. That is, it doesn’t mean that the nation’s output of goods and services (the definition of GDP) fell by that amount all at once during the first quarter. It means that if the contraction that did occur continued at the same pace over the course of a full year, the cumulative drop would add up to 4.8 percent. (NB: The real decline was 4.87 percent, even though the Commerce Department rounded it down to 4.8 for some reason.)
The same cautionary note goes for all the terrifying predictions for the second quarter in particular, to the effect that inflation-adjusted GDP would plummet by 20 percent of 30 percent. They’re annualized rates, too.
No doubt about it – even the new annualized numbers are terrible. (And unless otherwise specified, all the following statistics will represent sequential – i.e., quarter-to-quarter – rates of change.) That’s not because they’re the worst that Americans have seen lately. That dubious honor goes to the fourth quarter of 2008, during the Great Recession, when real GDP sank at an 8.66 percent annual rate. Instead, it’s because the main shutdowns of business didn’t start until mid-March. Since the first quarter ended on March 31, a genuinely appalling amount of damage took place in a very short period of time.
As a result, surely the numbers for the second quarter will be much worse, as the lockdowns themselves spread for weeks thereafter, and their effects have had time to sink in (even though the second quarter figures presumably will reflect some of the cautious easing and reopening that’s begun). Also possibly leading to more depressing future results: Today’s first quarter figures are the first of three reports for the first quarter we’ll be getting this year. As Washington gathers more complete information, the reported nosedive could well get steeper.
The principal ray of hope comes in the nature of the downturn. It was literally ordered by America’s national, state, and local governments. Whatever recession or depression that’s begun says little about the fundamentals of the economy pre-virus – unlike typical recessions, which result from weaknesses in expansions that for various reasons finally come to light, or are brought to light by the Federal Reserve (in many cases) – which in modern times, has reacted to signs of economic excesses (like accelerating inflation), by raising interest rates (that is, increasing the cost of borrowing for everyone) and trying to bring price changes back under control. (And yes, a big exception was the Fed’s record during the previous, so-called Bubble Decade, when its principal aim seemed to be to juice growth at all costs – in that case, at the risk of scary degrees of financial instability.)
All the same, the biological roots of this economic slump create great uncertainties about the rate of recovery, since no one can know how quickly Americans will return to patronizing service sector business in particular, which comprise the vast bulk of the economy, and so many of which largely serve customers in person.
In that vein, it’s more than a little interesting that output in services shrank in the first quarter at a much faster annual rate (10.63 percent) than goods output (1.35 percent). Dig a little deeper, though, and you see that the numbers for goods are sharply divided. After-inflation output of durables (products supposed to last for three years or more either in use or on the shelf – like autos and appliances) plunged by 17.12 percent at annual rates. But constant dollar production of non-durables (notably processed food but also chemicals and paper and textile and plastics and others) actually increased – by 6.77 percent.
Those goods and services figures are contained in the “personal consumption expenditures” category of each GDP report. And overall, such consumption dropped by 7.78 percent annualized in the first quarter. Notably, that’s a much worse result than anything seen during the last, Great, recession (which, by the way, was the previous deepest economic slump experienced in the United States since the Great Depression of the 1930s). During that most recent downturn, personal spending’s decrease bottomed out with a 3.72 percent annualized fall in the fourth quarter of 2008.
No – to get to a worse consumption figure than just recorded, you need to go all the way back to the second quarter of 1980, during a horrible period marked by a painful recession and roaring inflation partly produced by sharp oil price increases. Then, such spending cratered at a 9.01 percent annual rate, and the entire economy shrank by 8.23 percent annualized.
Of course, the American economy entails more than just personal consumption (although, as known by RealityChek regulars, such spending represented a big majority of all economic activity– 69.27 percent of real GDP at present – even after the big decreases in the first quarter). Business investment amounted to 14.03 percent of GDP after inflation, and its levels were off considerably, too, in the first quarter – by 8.92 percent.
No doubt, that’s going to worsen, since the lower personal spending, as well as the lower business spending itself, mean that so many businesses will be short of customers for the time being. Even so, the Great Recession numbers were much worse. From the fourth quarter of 2008 through the second quarter of 2009, this “non-residential fixed investment” tumbled at double-digit quarterly rates, with the bottom coming during the first quarter of 2009 (a 30.14 percent plummet!).
And what about America’s trade performance? The constant dollar trade deficit narrowed by 9.25 percent – from $900.7 billion (again, that’s an annualized figure) to $817.4 billion. That deficit number is the lowest quarterly figure since the $761.4 billion recorded in the fourth quarter of 2016. Yet the rate of decrease was almost matched by that of the fourth quarter of last year (9.03 percent). To find a comparable result, you’d have to go back to the fourth quarter of 2013 (9.24 percent).
One big question: How much of this latest drop was due to oil? We know that the general answer is “a lot” – even though in principle these results take into account (i.e., factor out) the recent crash in oil prices. Nonetheless, a dramatically slowed U.S. economy is going to consume less oil overall (ditto for a recessed global economy, something to ponder since the United States is now an oil exporter). So we’ll need to look at the volume numbers and then compare them with those of previous quarters when the trade deficit dropped significantly for a fuller picture.
What is clear so far, though – in terms of the real overall trade deficit, the first quarter 2020 decline pales before those experienced during the Great Recession. In particular, the real trade gap decreased by 15.08 percent annualized during the first quarter of 2009 and by 18.13 percent during the following quarter.
In line with the consumption findings, moreover, services trade performed worse than (the much greater amount of) goods trade. The goods deficit was 7.39 percent narrower in the first quarter of 2020 ($0.9995 trillion annualized) than during the fourth quarter of 2019 ($1.0792 trillion annualized). But the services surplus rose by only 2.07 percent (from $188.2 billion annualized to $192.1 billion).
Especially revealing were the import and export findings. For goods, exports were off by only 0.30 percent – from $1.7823 trillion annualized to $1.7769 trillion. But for services, they dropped by 5.85 percent (from $758.6 billion annualized to $714.2 billion).
The services export and imports decreases were the biggest on record – by far. And although figures only go back to the first quarter of 2002, can anyone seriously doubt that these results reflect the numerous international travel bans sparked by the United States – and so many other countries?
Because services play such a predominant role in the economy, and because services that need to be delivered in person, like dining out and travel, represent such big shares of the economy (just short of 3.25 percent of all private sector output for restaurants, bars, and lodging places alone as of late 2019, and a much bigger 11.06 percent of the private sector workforce), it seems reasonable at this point to expect these sectors to keep taking particularly powerful blows at least as long as the virus remains a pandemic.