The Remarkable Movement in Inventory Investment in the New GDP Numbers

The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) released its “advance estimate” of real GDP for the fourth quarter of 2021 on January 27, 2022. (The BEA’s advance estimate is its first, or preliminary, estimate of real GDP for the period.) At an annual rate, real GDP grew by 6.9 percent in the fourth quarter, which was a rate well above what most economists had forecast.  It’s always worth bearing in mind that the advance estimate will be revised several times in future BEA reports, but at this point the growth rate is the highest since the second quarter of 2000. 

The following table shows the interesting fact that final sales of goods and services (line 2) grew only about 2 percent, higher than in the third quarter of 2021, but well below the growth in sales during the previous four quarters. In fact, more than 70 percent of the growth in real GDP during the quarter took the form of increases in inventories (line 3).

Is the fact that economic growth during the quarter mainly took the form of businesses accumulating inventories bad news for the economy? Most likely not. It is true that we often sees firms accumulate inventories at the beginning of a recession. This outcome occurs when firms are too optimistic about sales and end up adding goods to inventory that they had expected to be able to sell. In other words, actual investment expenditures turn out to be greater than plannedinvestment expenditures; the difference between planned and actual investment being equal to the value of unintended inventory accumulation. (We discuss the relationship among planned investment, actual investment, and unintended inventory accumulation in Economics, Chapter 22, Section 22.1 and in Macroeconomics, Chapter 12, Section 12.1.)

It’s possible that some of the inventories firms accumulated during the fourth quarter of 2021 were the result of sales being below the level that the firms had forecast. During the quarter, the Omicron variant of the Covid virus was spreading in several parts of the United States and some consumers cut back their purchases, partly because they were more reluctant to enter stores. It seems likely, though, that the majority of the inventory accumulation was voluntary—and therefore part of planned investment—as firms attempted to rebuild inventories they had drawn down earlier in the year. Some firms also may have decided to hold more inventories than they typically had prior to the pandemic because they wanted to avoid missing sales in case Omicron resulted in further disruptions to their supply chains. 

Source:  The BEA’s website can be found at this link.

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