28 January 2011

Despite the Miss on Expectations Today's US 4Q GDP Number Was Still a Puffball

I just did not have the time or energy to do the work analyzing today's US GDP estimate for the 4Q10.  The drop in stocks and spike higher in metals had me squaring off accounts between the usual non-financial chores. 

For me the 'tell' that something was dodgy was the unusualy lower chain deflator which is used to calculate the 'real' GDP by removing the inflationary effect. .3% versus 1.5% expected and 2.1% prior. For every tick lower on the deflator the headline GDP growth number rises.

John Williams of ShadowStats did his usual excellent job of dissecting the corpus of the BEA's work and I am grateful for this excerpt. His site is a must read.

You may wish to take the time to read some of the free reports, on how the US government numbers are 'adjusted' over time, and his hyperinflation report which is quite interesting. I still do not agree, preferring to stay with my stagflation forecast which has long been my expected outcome. But I am keeping an open mind to both the deflationary and hyperinflationary outcomes.

Bear in mind that the UK had showed a contraction for the same period, a much more credible representation of the numbers. And so the talking heads would say that the UK suffered from the weather, and was mired in snow. Yes, and the US economy is mired in self-serving scoundrels and craven nincompoops.

GDP Estimate Was of Unusually Poor Quality.

This morning’s "advance" estimate of annualized 3.17% real (inflation-adjusted) GDP growth was nonsensical, even though it was somewhat shy of consensus. Most of the reporting was based on guesses; hard data simply are not available this early. Consider that more than the total reported fourth-quarter growth was accounted for by a narrowing of the trade deficit. The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) indicated that 3.44 percentage points of growth was generated by an improved net export account. That estimate, however, was based on just the two months of available data (October and November) for the quarter. December’s data will not be available until February.

As noted in Commentary No. 345, the relative improvement suggested in the trade deficit for the fourth-quarter (based on the October and November reporting) could have added 1.3 annualized (0.3 quarterly) percentage points to fourth-quarter real GDP growth, but not 3.44 percentage points. That differential required extremely optimistic assumptions on the part of the BEA as to the December trade results. Accordingly, the upcoming trade release will be particularly interesting in terms of its implications for GDP revisions.

Separately, after quarters of a significant inventory build-up, a reduced pace of relative inventory increase reduced the reported real fourth-quarter GDP growth rate by 3.70 percentage points. Inventories at this point in time are even less reliable than the trade data. Nonetheless, inventory build-up still accounted for half the annual average GDP growth in 2010.

Also, despite the 30% annualized (8% quarterly) quarter-to-quarter contraction in housing starts, residential investment rose at a 3.4% annualized pace.

The point here is that reported 3.17% annualized growth, with the regular +/- 3.0% 95% confidence interval, along with such unusually large swings in unreliable components, should not be taken as a serious or meaningful measure of quarterly economic growth. I believe that realistic growth would have been flat-to-minus and eventually that should prove out in long-range revisions.

Where early GDP reporting generally is of extremely poor quality, some catch-up should be seen in the annual benchmark revisions due for release on July 29th. At that time — as will be seen with the payroll employment reporting due for revision a week from now — the revisions to prior economic growth generally will be to the downside, showing a more-protracted and deeper economic contraction in place than officially is recognized at present.

With quarterly weakness in the housing starts and in new orders for durable goods, the indications remain in place for a re-intensifying economic downturn, as discussed inSpecial Commentary No. 342.

"Advance" Guesstimate on Fourth-Quarter 2010 GDP Was Unusually Flimsy.

The opening comments covered several unusual issues with the current GDP report. A more traditional problem lies in how inflation was handled. On a one-to-one basis, the lower the inflation rate used to deflate the GDP, the higher will be the real or inflation-adjusted GDP growth rate. Annualized GDP inflation — the GDP Implicit Price Deflator — was reported showing annualized inflation of 0.3% in the fourth-quarter, down from 2.0% in the third, while annualized CPI inflation rose to 2.6% in the fourth-quarter, up from 1.5% in the third.
And some practitioner of economic auterism will snarkily say, "But har har and tut tut. You obviously do not understand that the deflator has nothing to do with inflation, although it purports to perform the function of taking out the inflationary effect. The deflator is merely what we say it is."

And to that I say, yes, and it also has nothing to do with reality, but rather the desire to make black appear white, and hell seem a heaven.