Q2 GDP Rises a Sluggish 1.5%

The U.S. economy grew at a real (inflation-adjusted) 1.5% (seasonally adjusted annual rate) in the second quarter of 2012, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reports. That’s roughly in line with consensus forecasts, but it’s disappointing nonetheless. The economy’s tepid 1.5% growth rate represents a slowdown from Q1’s 2.0% pace and a world away from the 4.1% rate posted in last year’s fourth quarter.

The slowdown in growth is due to several factors, starting with the lower rate of personal consumption expenditures. Consumer spending, which accounts for roughly 70% of GDP, decelerated to a 1.5% increase in Q2, down from 2.4% in Q1. Most of the downshift can be blamed on the dramatic decline in the durable goods portion of consumption, which retreated 1.0% in Q2 vs. a strong 11.5% rise in the previous quarter. The fall represents the first negative quarterly reading for durable goods spending since 2011’s Q2.

It’s safe to say that no one will find inspiration for thinking positively in today’s GDP report. “The main take away from today’s report, the specifics aside, is that the U.S. economy is barely growing,” says Dan Greenhaus, BTIG LLC’s chief economic strategist. “Along with a reduction in the actual amount of money companies were able to make, it’s no wonder the unemployment rate cannot move lower.”
Is today’s GDP report a sign that the economy is rolling over and a new recession is near? Perhaps, although it’s still debatable if we’re suffering from slow growth vs. a period that NBER will eventually label a contraction. That’s a subtle distinction for the folks without jobs or working at lesser positions to make ends meet. Meantime, back at the 30,000-foot level of macro analysis, reviewing a broad cross section of economic indicators through June—industrial production, payrolls, newly issued housing permits, jobless claims, etc.—suggests that the cycle hasn’t slipped over the edge. The trend has certainly weakened, but it’s premature to put a fork in the expansion just yet in the delicate art of defining peaks and troughs. Indeed, the Chicago Fed National Activity Index tells us to reserve judgment for the moment for labeling June as the start of a new downturn.
For another perspective, consider GDP’s year-over-year change. Specifically, let’s compare each quarter’s real, seasonally adjusted estimate of GDP with its year-earlier level, as shown in the second chart below. By that standard, the annual change is more or less on the fence in terms of where recessions have started in the past. The 2.2% annual change in real GDP is no one’s idea of a healthy change, but it’s also higher than the pace set in each of the first three quarters of 2011—quarters that didn’t result in a recession, as defined by NBER.

Yes, we’re skating on thin ice and it wouldn’t take much of a negative shock (or a series of lesser shocks) at this point to crack the ice. But this much is clear: if our cyclical goose is cooked, it’ll become obvious in the numbers. June’s data overall didn’t descend to that tipping point (at least based on the reports we have so far). July’s economic updates, when they start arriving next month, may tell us otherwise.