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America’s False Dawn

NEW HAVEN – Financial markets and the so-called Davos consensus are in broad agreement that something close to a classic cyclical revival may finally be at hand for the US. But is it?

At first blush, the celebration seems warranted. Growth in real GDP appears to have averaged close to 4% in the second half of 2013, nearly double the 2.2% pace of the preceding four years. The unemployment rate has finally fallen below the 7% threshold. And the Federal Reserve has validated this seemingly uplifting scenario by starting to taper its purchases of long-term assets.

But my advice is to keep the champagne on ice. Two quarters of strengthening GDP growth hardly indicates a breakout from an anemic recovery. The same thing has happened twice since the end of the Great Recession in mid-2009 – a 3.4% average annualized gain in the second and third quarters of 2010 and a 4.3% average increase in the fourth quarter of 2011 and the first quarter of 2012. In both cases, the uptick proved to be short-lived.

A similar outcome this time would not be surprising. Indeed, much of the acceleration in GDP growth has been bloated by an unsustainable surge of restocking. Over the first three quarters of 2013, rising inventory investment accounted for fully 38% of the 2.6% increase in total GDP. Excluding this inventory swing, annualized growth in “final sales” to consumers, businesses, and the government averaged a tepid 1.6%. With inventory investment unlikely to keep accelerating at anything close to its recent rate, overall GDP growth can be expected to converge on this more subdued pace of final demand.