On Friday, July 27, 2012 the US Department of Commerce released its report on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) results for the 2nd quarter for the US economy, with GDP revisions for the economy as well from 2009 through 2011.
Last winter the broad consensus among mainstream economists, politicians and the press was the US economy was finally on the way to recovery. Economic indicator after indicator was flashing green, they argued, proving recovery was in full swing. GDP for the 4th quarter 2011 recorded a moderately healthy 4% growth rate and was predicted by widespread sectors of the media would continue. But GDP numbers just released on July 27, 2012 show that 4% growth dropped precipitously by half, to only 2%. And in the latest report issued last week, 2nd quarter 2012 GDP continued to fall further to only 1.5%.
GDP for the first half of this year therefore has averaged about 1.7%–which is about the same 1.7% GDP growth for all of 2011. The US economy, in other words, is not growing any faster this year than it did last year. It is essentially stagnant, unable to generate a sustained recovery despite $3 trillion in spending and tax cuts over the past three and a half years. This scenario will at best continue, and may alternatively even worsen in the coming months; and if not worsen this year, certainly so in 2013.
This rapid slowing of the US economy in 2012 was predicted by this writer early last December 2011, in a general economic forecast for 2012-13 that appeared in the January issue of Z magazine. Contrary to the 4th quarter 4% GDP trend, in December 2011 this writer contrarily predicted “the first quarter of 2012 will record a significant slowing of GDP growth” and “the US economy will weaken further in the second quarter, 2012”.
The US economy has been essentially stagnant for at least the past two years, bumping along the bottom at a sub-par 2.5% GDP growth rate. The economy needs to grow in excess of 2.5% for net job creation to occur. Given the economy’s longer term 1.7% growth rate, it is not surprising net job growth the past three months has averaged barely 80,000 a month—i.e. well below the 125,000 or more needed just to absorb new entrants into the labor force. So we are in fact losing jobs again this year, 2012, despite what the official unemployment rate says.
Readers should note this 1.7% sub-par GDP growth the past 18 months has occurred despite the $802 billion tax cut passed by Congress in December 2010, virtually all of which was tax cuts for businesses and higher income household investors. In fact, it was more than $802 billion if further tax cuts for small businesses over the past 18 months are also factored into the total. Perhaps as much as $900 billion in pro-business/investor tax cuts have been passed, which have had minimal to zero impact on the economy and job creation. So much for that myth, and conservative-corporate ideology constantly pushed by politicians and the press, that ‘tax cuts create jobs’. Readers should keep that factual absence of any positive relationship between tax cuts and jobs and economy in mind, when more tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy are proposed by both parties once again as part of the year end deal coming immediately after the November elections. Expect both sides, Republicans and Democrats alike, to agree on reducing the top bracket tax rate on personal and corporate income both, from current 35% to at least 28% (the old Reagan years rate).
1st Quarter GDP: Temporary Growth Factors Disappear
While the hype about economic recovery was in full swing last winter, this writer pointed out in various publications that the 4th quarter GDP numbers were based almost totally on one-off developments that would disappear by mid-year 2012. At least half of the 4th quarter’s 4% growth rate was due to business inventory spending, making up at year end for the collapse of the same in the preceding 3rd quarter. Auto sales driving consumer spending was also noted as a temporary effect, given they were based on deep discounting and temporary demand that would not continue. Business spending that surged in the 4th quarter was also identified as temporary, as it was driven by year end claiming of tax credits, while manufacturing export gains in late 2011 would soon dissipate, it was predicted, as the global economy and trade slowdown eventually reached the U.S. in 2012.
The halving of GDP growth by the 1st quarter 2012 was due in part, as predicted, to the slowing of auto sales. The previously predicted slowing of business inventory spending occurred, while the 4th quarter’s business investing also disappeared as predicted. In addition to the dissipating temporary factors, new developments added to the 1st quarter’s GDP decline: Consumer spending slowed, as escalating gasoline prices began once again (for a third year in a row) taking their toll on consumers and as auto sales growth began to show signs of weakening. The global slowing of manufacturing also finally began to penetrate US economy by 2012, as US exports grew more slowly than imports and thus depressing GDP still further. Finally, the 30 month long decline in government spending, especially at the state and local government level, continued unabated into 2012.
In late April this writer predicted that the 2% first quarter 2012 GDP would continue to decline still further. In a piece in Truthout.org on May 8, it was predicted the 1st quarter GDP “decline will likely continue further in the months immediately ahead, to possibly as low as 1.5% the second quarter, April-June 2012.” (In a piece in Znet on May 6 it was predicted for the second quarter 2012 that “The growth rate could slow to possibly as low as 1.5%”).
2nd Quarter GDP’s Continuing Downtrend
The same factors that have been driving the 4% GDP to 2% in the January-March 2012 period have driven it lower still, to the recent 1.5%.
In the most recent 2nd quarter 2012, both consumer and business spending showed even further weakening—while government spending continued to contract for the 33rd consecutive month and the contribution to GDP by exports fell further as well.
Consumer spending on goods declined from its 5.4% rate in the 4th quarter to only 0.7% this past quarter. Durable goods spending in particular fell off a cliff last quarter, as auto sales not only slowed dramatically, as in the 1st quarter, but now in the 2nd actually turned negative. But perhaps the most dramatic indicator is the fall off in retail sales in general. Retail sales April-June fell in each of the three months. That is the first time for a three consecutive month decline since the deep collapse of 2008! Even services consumption recorded its slowest and lowest growth in two years!
What consumer spending did occur in the 2nd quarter was driven by sharply rising credit card debt as well as household auto and education debt, credit cards growing by 11.2% and auto-student loans by 8%. In other words, to the extent consumer spending is occurring at all it is not due to rising household real disposable income—which is actually falling—but due to households taking on more debt. So much for the mainstream argument that consumer spending is slowing because households are working off debt (i.e. so-called deleveraging). That may be true for the wealthiest 10% households with income growth from stocks and bonds, but not for the bottom 90%, i.e. the more than 100 million rest of us. But consumer spending increasingly dependent on credit cards and other borrowing portends poorly for further spending down the road. It is not sustainable and will result in yet a further slowing of consumer spending and consequently economic growth.
Consumer spending is not the only major trouble spot in the 2nd quarter that promises to continue into the 3rd and beyond. Business spending also showed new signs of trouble in new places as well as the old last quarter. Business spending on plant expansion, which shows up as business ‘structures’ spending, collapsed last quarter from prior double digit levels in the 4th quarte—from 33.9% to only 0.9% in the last three months. That plummeting structures spending will eventually translate into a slowing of new job creation going forward as well. Businesses that don’t expand don’t add jobs. Slowing business spending was also evident in new orders placed for manufactured goods that turned negative for each of the past three. Watch next for the other business spending sector, on equipment and software, soon to flattened out in the future as well.
A third sector of the economy that contributed to growth in 2011, but has also reversed now as well, is exports. New orders for US exports have declined the past two months in a row, the first back to back fall since 2009. That confirms that any contribution of exports and manufacturing to GDP is now clearly over. It never really contributed that much in the first place, despite all the Obama administration hype in 2010-11 that manufacturing and more free trade would ‘lead the way’ to sustained US economic recovery. It was all hype to reward multinational technology and other companies—big contributors to Democratic election coffers—while diverting attention away from the obvious failures to generate sustained recovery after the three Obama ‘recovery programs’ introduced in 2009, 2010, and 2011.
Not least there’s the continued poor performance of the government sector in the 2nd quarter. It has continued to decline every quarter since the 3rd quarter of 2009, or 33 consecutive months now. That spending decline at the state and local government level has been the case despite more than $300 billion in federal stimulus subsidies to the states since June 2009 and hundreds of billions more in unemployment insurance payments by the federal government to the states. Why state-local government spending has declined every quarter since mid-2009 despite the massive subsidies is an anomaly yet to be explained. Like corporations hoarding their tax cuts, and banks hoarding their bailouts, both refusing to use the money to lend and create jobs—perhaps the states and local governments also hoarded their subsidies. Perhaps that’s why the Obama administration quickly shifted its promise that its stimulus package would create jobs, to a message that it would, if not create, at least ‘save jobs’.
In answer to the obvious further deteriorating in the 2nd quarter in both consumer, business, and government spending, the press and media in recent weeks have tried to grab at straws and hype a ‘recovery underway in the housing sector’. But this line has been based on the slimmest of evidence: the indicator that home builders’ new construction has risen. But the media hype in recent weeks regarding housing has conveniently ignored various other indicators recently showing continued housing sector stagnation: For example, new home sales declined by 8.4% in June, the largest fall since early 2011. Mortgage loan applications and new building permits also fell, while median home prices recorded a –3.2% decline compared to a year earlier. That amounts to nothing near a housing recovery. To the extent home building has risen, it has been largely limited to multi-family units—i.e. to apartment building. That’s not surprising, given the 12 million plus homeowners who have been foreclosed since the recession began and need some place to live. But housing sector indicators as a whole still show that sector languishing well below half of what it was pre-2007 and with little indication of any kind of sustained growth or recovery. As in the case of net job creation, without a housing recovery leading the way there is no sustained general US economic recovery.
In all the 11 prior recessions since 1947 in the U.S., state and local government spending increases, net job creation in the private sector equivalent to 350,000 jobs per month for six consecutive months, and housing sector recovery have all been necessary to ‘lead the way’ out of recession. But for the past four years none of the above has been the case. There have been no effective jobs program, housing-foreclosures solution program, or state-local government spending program. That tripartite failure is at the heart of the failed economic recovery of the Obama first term.
Jack Rasmus is the author of the April 2012 book, “Obama’s Economy: Recovery for the Few”, published by Pluto Press and Palgrave-Macmillan. His other recent articles, radio and tv interviews, are available on his website, www.kyklosproductions.com, and on his blog, jackrasmus.com.