Barron’s Alan Abelson takes a look at Thursday’s GDP laugher, and sees the same issues we noted, plus a few more:
"GDP, IN COMMON PARLANCE, stands for gross domestic product, or the aggregate value of all the goods and services produced on these blessed shores. Or, at least, that’s what it used to mean in those long-gone days of yore, when life was simpler and government statistics credible. These days, alas, those initials more typically signify "gross deceptive pap."
The insidious change has not gone unremarked, both in this magazine and by more than one skeptical scanner of the turgid flow of numbers flowing out of Washington. Yet purportedly professional seers, who draw handsome paychecks for sifting through the unending streams of digits and making sense of them for hoi polloi like us, deferentially pass along the official numbers unsullied by even a modicum of analysis, as if they were holy writ, especially when they’re upbeat.
A case very much in point was last Thursday’s revised report on second-quarter GDP, which helped spark a nice, if something less than enduring, leap forward by the stock market. The initial version released in July posited that the venerable economic barometer had risen by 1.9% — up from the first quarter’s meager 0.9% gain, but obviously no great shakes.
Comes now the so-called preliminary estimate that claims second-quarter GDP grew by a much more robust 3.3%. That was hailed by the incorrigibly constructive contingent in the Street as evidence of the resiliency (favorite word) of the economy and prompted the thinned-out ranks of investors to put their worries and their plans for an extra-long weekend on hold and pile into stocks. Hooray! Hooray!
But even a cursory look at what they’re drooling over reveals pretty thin gruel. Nothing, for sure, that would cause any sentient being to start humming "Happy Days Are Here Again." For the ostensibly better GDP showing is a mirage, conjured up by the usual suspects out of smoke and mirrors.
The key here is the GDP deflator, which purports to adjust GDP for the impact of inflation; it’s a curious calculation in that, contrary to its moniker, it seems designed to do the exact opposite of deflating GDP.
Thus, according to this accommodating measure (accommodating, that is, if you’re determined to put a good face on a dreary report), inflation grew at an improbably restrained 1.33% in April-June. And maybe it did — but not in the good old U.S. of A. However, obviously more important than accuracy to those doing the calculating is this simple equation: The lower the deflator, the greater the growth of GDP.
John Williams of Shadow Government Statistics, whose incisive description of the decades of willful distortion of inflation by Washington we cited a few weeks ago, points out that the supposed 1.33% increase in the second quarter would represent the lowest inflation rate in five years. Must be that plain folks stubbornly refuse to recognize the dramatic drop in inflation, because, as Phil Gramm said, we’re such a bunch of whiners.
Of course, even by the government’s not entirely extravagant figuring, the consumer-price index was up a hefty 8% in the latest quarter. Perhaps the computer that tallies the CPI doesn’t talk to the computer that measures the deflator.
By John’s reckoning, "a second-quarter year-to-year contraction of 2.9% would have been more in line with underlying fundamentals, past methodologies and the ongoing recession."
He suggests that a more telling picture of the economy’s progress or lack of it is the alternative to GDP, known as gross domestic income, or GDI. It’s a rough equivalent of GDP but measures the nation’s income instead of production.
According to John, after adjusting for inflation, GDI in the June quarter weighed in at an anemic 0.5%, atop negative growth in the preceding two quarters — which, as it happens, meets the popular definition of a recession.
Friday’s disclosure that personal income in July suffered its biggest decline in three years doesn’t exactly portend a rebound in the third quarter, and certainly didn’t come as a big surprise to John, who sees the outlook for the economy remaining glum, with no early end to the banks’ solvency crisis, as he terms it, nor the inflationary recession. (Emphasis mine)
Also worth noting: Merrill’s David Rosenberg looks at the GDP version of Banks & Brokers profits:
THE ASTUTE ECONOMY-WATCHER for Merrill Lynch, David Rosenberg, also strongly advises digesting the suspect GDP report with a "very large grain of salt." Among other things, he casts a skeptical eye on how the report treats the decline in corporate profits. (We won’t keep you in suspense: The answer is: "gingerly.")
More specifically, he notes, "national-account corporate profits declined at a 9.2% rate in the second quarter." For domestic industries, he goes on, profits are down 14.4% year over year.
But according to the GDP report, domestic nonfinancial profits fell at a much sharper 22% annual rate. The reason the drop in total corporate earnings was limited to 9.2% was that, David relates, profits in the financial sector, so claims the report, surged — get this — at a 27% annual rate.
His wonderfully eloquent comment:
"Are you kidding me?"
My original comment stands: If you believed that US economy grew at a 3.3% annualized in Q2 2008, I have a very reasonably priced bridge for sale in Brooklyn. Hardly used. Make an offer.
Henceforth, we shall rename the GDP deflator as the GDP Inflator, for that is what it does.
Goldman Sachs’ Jan Hatzius: Don’t Be Fooled by Inflation (August 2008)
Q2 GDP = 3.3% (kinda) (August 2008)
Is BEA Measuring Growth or Inflation? (August 2008)
Sizing Up Sarah
UP AND DOWN WALL STREET
Barron’s September 1, 2008