For an official report showing that the U.S. economy shrank, the Commerce Department’s initial read on the gross domestic product (GDP – the leading measure of the economy’s size) for the first quarter of this year garnered lots of good reviews. (See, e.g., here and here.)
According to these cheerleaders, when you look under the hood and examine why GDP fell, the details are encouraging – and even point to growth resuming shortly. I’m not so sure about that – and especially about the claim that the skyrocketing trade deficit so largely responsible for the negative print is only an accounting phenomenon that results from the peculiar way GDP changes are calculated, and therefore says nothing about the economy’s main fundamentals. (Indeed, I’ll have more to say on this point later this week.)
But if we’re going to examine carefully the components of the economy’s growth and shrinkage, let’s examine them all. Because some other key details of the latest GDP report – and some immediate predecessors – draw a more troubling picture. They show that the economy is looking even more bubble-ized than in the mid-2000s, when expansion became over-dependent on booms in consumer spending and housing, neglected the income, savings, and investment needed to generate sustainable growth, and inevitably imploded into the global financial crisis and ensuing Great Recession.
The pre-crisis bloat in personal consumption and housing is clear from the magnitude they reached at the bubble-era’s peak. In the third quarter of 2005, this toxic combination of GDP components accounted for a then-record 73.90 percent of the total economy after inflation (the measure most widely followed) on a stand-still basis. And for that quarter, they were responsible for 85.26 percent of the 3.45 percent real growth that had taken place over the previous year.
During the first quarter of this year, consumer spending and housing accounted for 88.17 percent of the 3.57 percent real growth that had taken place since the first quarter of 2021. (Remember – inflation-adjusted growth for all of 2021was a strong 5.67 percent.) And on a stand-still basis, the toxic combination made up a new record 74.04 percent of the economy in price-adjusted terms.
For the full year 2021, personal spending and housing represented 73.78 percent of inflation-adjusted GDP on a stand-still basis, and generated 101.5 percent of its constand dollar growth. (Some other GDP components acted as drags on growth.) That stand-still number topped the old full-year record of 73.68 percent (also set in 2005) and share-of-growth figure trailed only the 114.3 percent in very-slow-growth 2016.
There are three big differences, though, between the peak bubble period of the mid-2000s and today. Back then, the federal funds rate – the interest rate set by the Federal Reserve that strongly influences the cost of credit, and therefore the economic growth rate for the entire economy, was about four percent. Today, it’s in a range between 0.25 and 0.50 percent. That is, it’s only about a tenth as high.
In addition, the Fed hadn’t spent years stimulating the economy by buying tens of billions of dollars worth of government bonds and mortgage-backed securities each month. This disparity alone justifies concern about the health and durability of the current economic recovery. Finally, inflation during that bubble period was much lower.
Even worse, these purchases have now stopped and the central bank has made clear its determination to bring torrid current inflation down by raising interest rates. If these tightening moves cut back on toxic combination spending, it’ll be legitimate to ask where else adequate levels of U.S. economic growth are going to come from, and whether policymakers will try to revive the expansion in an even bubblier way.