GDP fell, and is rising again

Brooklyn Supermarket

Milk is displayed on shelves in a Brooklyn supermarket on June 9, 2014 in New York City.

U.S. gross domestic product fell 2.9 percent in the first quarter of 2014, according to the third revised estimate from the U.S. Commerce Department. Earlier preliminary estimates had reported a smaller decline in GDP.

Contributing to this higher figure for GDP decline were downward revisions to health-care spending following the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act. Government economists initially predicted that newly-insured Americans (and those on new plans) would spend more on healthcare than they did in the first quarter.

Most of the contraction in the first quarter is still attributed to severe winter weather across the country in early 2014 -- including the so-called Polar Vortex that spread across many northern states. It led consumers to go out, and spend, less. Businesses cut back on hiring, production, and investment. Other factors slowing the economy down included elimination of federal long-term unemployment benefits, and cuts to the federal food stamp program.

“This is a terrible number,” said economist John Canally at brokerage company LPL Financial in Boston. Yet, he said the stock and bond markets mostly ignored the statistic, looking forward instead to economic performance in the second quarter, as well as anticipated growth for the rest of the year and into 2015.

“The second quarter looks pretty strong,” said Canally, “with GDP tracking (positive) to between 4 percent and 5 percent. It would be the best run rate on the economy since well before the Great Recession.”

Canally pointed out that consumer confidence is up and so is hiring by businesses. Unemployment claims are down, while the manufacturing sector has strengthened.

There are also worrisome economic indicators on the horizon: rising consumer prices, especially for food and gasoline; stagnant wages for most workers; historically high levels of long-term unemployment; and international tensions in the Middle East, East Asia and Eastern Europe.

Most economists don’t think there’s much danger of the U.S. slipping back into recession -- at least, not without a significant shock, such as a further spike in oil prices.

MIT economist Jim Poterba is president of the National Bureau of Economic Research, which determines when the U.S. is officially in recession. He said the GDP reversal this past winter does teach us something about economic prediction.

“What I think we learned from the Polar Vortex, and we could learn from a protected heat wave, is that there are closer links between extreme weather fluctuations and economic activity than we may recognize,” said Poterba. “Potentially, extreme heat can have similar kinds of effects -- extreme demands on the electricity grid, for example.”

The National Weather Service predicts higher-than-normal temperatures in many regions of the U.S. this summer, including the West Coast, the Southern Great Plains, the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic States.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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