It was reported this morning that GDP growth for the first quarter of 2011 slowed to just 1.8 percent. In the fourth quarter of 2010, GDP grew 3.1 percent, so this is a significant drop. The news is the talk of the economic-reporter class today, and it looks bad. That said, commentators offer some possible mitigating factors. Here are some things to keep in mind:
This quarter's numbers might just be an exception. The New York Times cites a number of mitigating factors for Q1 that won't necessarily last into the spring and beyond: high imports; low military spending; winter blizzards closing businesses and depressing construction; Middle East unrest driving up oil prices. Analyst Kathy Bostjancic says the 1.8 growth figure is hopefully "a pause, not a trend." This echoes Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's remarks at yesterday's press conference that the first-quarter "slowdown" was thought to be "transitory." BBC News reminds us that the Fed's revised projection of GDP growth for 2011 is now somewhere between 3.1 and 3.3 percent.
But not if inflation hawks keep sounding the alarm, say left-leaning economic commentators. Brad DeLong of U.C. Berkeley tersely notes that "contractionary fiscal policy is contractionary." Steve Benen at The Washington Monthly writes that "we can and must do much better than 1.8%, but we won't if the nation pursues a conservative approach that focuses on one problem that doesn't exist (inflation)."
Either way, this is bad news. Ezra Klein at The Washington Post writes that "in normal times," 1.8 percent growth would be "disappointing. In a recovery, it’s downright terrible." Henry Blodget at Business Insider offers an analogy that's the opposite of sugar-coated:
1.8% GDP growth in the face of massive stimulus is the equivalent of your car sputtering down the highway at 45 miles per hour while you have the gas pedal floored. You might be glad that the car hasn't broken down completely, but you certainly won't conclude that all is well. And you also might conclude--wisely--that if 45 is the best you can do with the gas pedal floored, things may be about to get a whole lot worse.
But sluggish GDP may not drag jobs down with it. Ezra Klein at the Post again points out that if you look at the figures over time, "it’s very hard to discern any relationship at all between quarterly GDP growth and quarterly job numbers." But he adds, ominously, that "this week's payroll numbers were the worst since January. The fact that one doesn't predict the other doesn't mean they both won't be bad."
President Obama would probably like to focus on the positives--that's what Chris Rovzar at New York thinks, and we'd tend to agree, since Obama's reelection chances may depend to a great extent on whether people believe the economy's recovering or not. "Obama's got to be hoping that next week's job numbers will continue to improve to mitigate this bad news," writes Rovzar. "Or maybe even just that we'll keep talking about the birth certificate for a couple more days."