Gross domestic product, a broad measure of economic activity, fell 0.9% on an annualized basis from April to June. This decline marks a key symbolic threshold for the most commonly used – albeit unofficial – definition of a recession as two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth.
The much-anticipated data release has taken on outsize significance as investors, policymakers and everyday Americans seek some clarity in the current confusing economic environment.
The negative decline shown in Thursday’s first reading of second-quarter GDP activity – data that will be revised twice more – was mainly due to lower inventory levels. In recent quarters, businesses have tried to replenish stocks depleted during the pandemic – and in trying to adapt to the supply chain disruption, they found themselves overstocked at a time when consumers withdrew some purchases . Investments in inventories during the second quarter were therefore lower than in the first quarter.
“The general conclusion is that the economy is slowing down, and that is what [Federal Reserve] wants,” said Ryan Sweet, who leads real-time economics at Moody’s Analytics. “We are not in a recession.
Although Thursday’s initial estimate marked a steep decline from the 6.7% expansion the economy experienced in the second quarter of 2021, the White House has been adamant that the largest economy world, despite being rocked by decades-long high inflation and a cascade of supply shocks, remains fundamentally sound.
“They have a much stricter definition: it’s widespread and persistent weakness in the economy,” Sweet said. “And it’s not widespread. It’s really concentrated in inventories and in trade – trade weighed heavily on first-quarter GDP.”
The latest weekly jobless claims data from the BLS on Thursday showed that first jobless claims were estimated at 256,000 for the week ending July 23. That total is 5,000 below the previous week’s level, which was revised up by 10,000 claims to 261,000.
“Unemployment claims have definitely risen from their cyclical lows,” Sweet said. “I think it’s more a reflection of an economy shifting into lower gear.”
Economists say the main reason it would be premature to call a recession based on Thursday’s numbers is that the data can and probably will change. Subsequent revisions to first-quarter GDP figures, for example, have moved from an initial decline of 1.4% to 1.6%, and Thursday’s figures are just the first of three estimates.
“It’s usually single points in time, snapshots. It’s almost like looking at a balance sheet versus an income statement over a quarter,” said Eric Freedman, chief investment officer at US Bank Wealth Management. .
“New information can emerge,” he said, and when that happens, those variables change the outcome.
Sometimes the differences between the estimates are significant. GDP revisions in the fourth quarter of 2008, for example, revealed that economic activity had actually plunged -8.4% on an annualized basis, indicating a much deeper recession than the initial estimate of -3.8%. suggested.
Right now, the biggest blemish on target preventing economists from getting a clear picture is a buildup of inventories and a corresponding imbalance in the country’s usual trade flows.
“What you’re starting to see and hear a lot right now is what’s going on with inventory…Inventory is an issue, both in terms of the mix of inventory retailers are holding and the amount,” Freedman said.
Anna Rathbun, chief investment officer at CBIZ Investment Advisory Services, suggested the 1.6% contraction in GDP in the first quarter was artificially weak because companies started building up inventories in the final quarter of last year. This pushed forward economic activity that would otherwise have taken place in the early months of this year, she said.
“The fourth quarter, for me, was a little bloated,” Rathbun said. “Everyone was hoarding stuff.”
Additionally, when firms import more and export less, that dynamic weighs on GDP, said Jacob Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
“It’s the value of production within the physical borders of the United States, so if you have, hypothetically, stable exports and higher imports, then your trade deficit increases. In that sense, a trade deficit growing subtracts from GDP,” he said, especially when combined with wild swings in prices.
“When you have wildly fluctuating commodity prices, and especially in times of high inflation in general, that can be misleading and, in my view, cast too negative a view of the economic picture,” Kirkegaard said. “We have to be careful saying that the GDP figure is the absolutely valid measure of economic well-being in the country.”
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell on Wednesday reiterated the importance of reviewing various key economic measures as the central bank determines future rate moves. However, Powell said the first reading of a GDP report should be taken “with a grain of salt”.