U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) shrank at an annualized rate of -1.4% q/q as compared to already weak expectations of around +1%.
- However, the negative headline is not the start of the recession which may happen in 2023-24 – the details of this report matter.
- First, personal consumption expenditures, which account for 70% of all economic activity, grew at an annualized rate of 2.7% q/q, better than the 2.5% from last quarter and the 2.0% from the quarter before that. Overall investment, another critical component of the economy rose at a very strong 7.3% q/q rate.
- But the report got killed mostly by net exports which took a massive -3.2% off the headline. In other words, excluding net exports, the rest of the economy actually grew +1.8% q/q. As the global economy struggles to get out of the Covid-19 pandemic, the U.S. is importing far more goods and services from the rest of the world, than the U.S. is exporting to the rest of the world. That net export gap grew by $192 billion (annualized) over Q4-21, and since GDP growth measures the change (growth) from quarter to quarter, one can see the colossal effect net exports had on the top line.
- A contraction in inventories chopped another -0.8% off of the GDP headline.
- A resulting measure of economic activity in the report, which excludes net exports and the change in inventories, is called Final Sales to Domestic Purchasers, and that grew at a decent annualized rate of 2.6% q/q.
- Government spending took yet another -0.5% off of the top line, driven by a sharp -8.5% decline in defense spending.
- The report also noted that the effects of Covid-19 continued to weigh on the economy but that it was difficult to measure. “In the first quarter, an increase in Covid-19 cases related to the Omicron variant resulted in continued restrictions and disruptions in the operations of establishments in some parts of the country. Government assistance payments in the form of forgivable loans to businesses, grants to state and local governments, and social benefits to households all decreased as provisions of several federal programs expired or were tapered off. The full economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic cannot be quantified in the GDP estimate for the first quarter because the impacts are generally embedded in source data and cannot be separately identified.”
- Roaring inflation across the economy of 8.0% in the quarter, a 41-year high, also took its toll on the report. The actual dollar amount of GDP before inflation, also known as nominal GDP, actually grew 6.5% for the quarter. But after GDP inflation of 8.0%, real GDP grew at the aforementioned -1.4% (differences due to rounding). An illustration helps explain what’s happening here. Think of the economy as an ice cream store. In Q1, the dollar amount of sales (technically, value-added) for the store grew 6.5%, but most of that was due to inflation of 8.0%. After inflation, sales actually shrank by -1.4%. In other words, the number of ice cream cones sold actually fell by -1.4%, but since the price rose 8%, the dollar amount of sales rose 6.5%. If this pattern were to continue, it would be bad. Fewer cones would be sold, so there would be fewer employees needed to make, transport, and scoop them. And consumers wouldn’t be able to buy as many cones as they would like because the price would be too high compared to their income. That’s the double hit of inflation.
But all of that is in the past. The GDP report tells us what happened in January, February, and March – it’s backward-looking, and that’s why the stock market shook the report off and actually rose after its release.
What’s really concerning is what is likely to happen in the future, events which could well result in a recession in 2023-24. Inflation is out of control. To contain it, the Federal Reserve will have to raise the Federal Funds rate very sharply this year. And when the Fed is raising that interest rate to fend off inflation, it is deliberately trying to slow the economy, and it works, every time.
Financial markets are now anticipating that the Fed will have to raise the equivalent of ten 0.25% (25 basis points or bps) hikes this year, bringing the Fed Funds rate to around 2.75%. Since there are only six meetings left this year, that means the Fed will have to raise by 50 bps in at least two meetings, and May’s meeting will be one of them.