Be Careful When Interpreting Macroeconomic Data at the Beginning of a Recession

On Friday, July 8, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its monthly “Employment Situation” report for June 2022. The BLS estimated that nonfarm employment had increased by 372,000 during the month. That number was well above what economic forecasters had expected and seemed inconsistent with other macroeconomic data that showed the U.S. economy slowing. (Note that the increase in employment is from the establishment survey, sometimes called the payroll survey, which we discuss in Macroeconomics, Chapter 9, Section 9.1 and Economics, Chapter 19, Section 19.1.)

Data indicating that the economy was slowing during the first half of 2022 include the Bureau of Economic Analysis’s (BEA) estimate that real GDP had declined by 1.6 percent in the first quarter of 2022. The BEA’s advance estimate—the agency’s first estimate for the quarter—for the change in real GDP during the second quarter of 2022 won’t be released until July 28, but there are indications that real GDP will have declined again during the second quarter.  For instance, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta compiles a forecast of real GDP called GDPNow. The GDPNow forecast uses data that are released monthly on 13 components of GDP. This method allows economists at the Atlanta Fed to issue forecasts of real GDP well in advance of the BEA’s estimates. On July 8, the GDPNow forecast was that real GDP in the second quarter of 2022 would decline by 1.2 percent.

Two consecutive quarters of declining real GDP seems inconsistent with employment strongly growing. At a basic level, if firms are producing fewer goods and services—which is what causes a decline in real GDP—we would expect the firms to be reducing, rather than increasing, the number of people they employ. How can we reconcile the seeming contradiction between rising employment and falling output? One possibility is that either the real GDP data or the employment data—or, possibly, both—are inaccurate. Both GDP data and employment data from the establishment survey are subject to potentially substantial future revisions. (Note that because they are constructed from a survey of households, the employment data in the household survey aren’t revised. As we discuss in the text, economists and policymakers typically rely more on the establishment survey than on the household survey in gauging the current state of the labor market.) Substantial revisions are particularly likely for data released during the beginning of a recession. 

In Macroeconomics, Chapter 9, Section 9.1 (Economics, Chapter 19, Section 19.1), we give an example of substantial revisions in the employment data. Figure 9.5 (reproduced below) shows that the declines in employment during the 2007–2009 recession were initially greatly underestimated. For example, the BLS initially reported that employment declined by 159,000 during September 2008. But after additional data became available, the BLS revised its estimate to a much larger decline of 460,000.

Similarly, in Macroeconomics, Chapter 15, Section 15,3, in the Apply the Concept “Trying to Hit a Moving Target: Making Policy with ‘Real-Time Data’,” we show the BEA’s estimates of the change in real GDP during the first quarter of 2008 have been revised substantially over time. The BEA’s advance estimate of the change in real GDP during the first quarter of 2008 was an increase of 0.6 percent at an annual rate. But that estimate of real GDP growth has been revised a number of times over the years, mostly downward. Currently, BEA data indicate that real GDP actually declined by 1.6 percent at an annual rate during the first quarter of 2008. This swing of more than 2 percentage points from the advance estimate is a large difference, which changes the picture of what happened during the first quarter of 2008 from one of an economy experiencing slow growth to one of an economy suffering a sharp downturn as it fell into the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The changes to the estimates of both employment and real GDP during the beginning of the 2007–2009 recession are not surprising. The initial estimates of employment and real GDP rely on incomplete data. The estimates are revised as additional data are collected by government agencies. During the beginning of a recession, these additional data are likely to show lower levels of employment and output than were indicated by the initial estimates. If the U.S. economy is in a recession in the second quarter of 2022, we can expect that the BLS and BEA will revise their initial estimates of employment and real GDP downward, which—depending on the relative magnitudes of the revisions to the two series—may resolve the paradox of rising employment and falling output. 

Or it’s possible that the U.S. economy is not in a recession. In that case, the employment data may be correct in showing an increase in the number of people working, and the real GDP data may be revised upward to show that output has actually been expanding during the first six months of 2022. Economists and policymakers will have to wait to see which of these alternatives turns out to be the case.

Are We at the Start of a Recession?

On Thursday morning, April 28, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) released its “advance” estimate for the change in real GDP during the first quarter of 2022. As shown in the first line of the following table, somewhat surprisingly, the estimate showed that real GDP had declined by 1.4 percent during the first quarter. The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s “GDP Now” forecast had indicated that real GDP would increase by 0.4 percent in the first quarter. Earlier in April, the Wall Street Journal’s panel of academic, business, and financial economists had forecast an increase of 1.2 percent. (A subscription may be required to access the forecast data from the Wall Street Journal’s panel.)

Do the data on real GDP from the first quarter of 2022 mean that U.S. economy may already be in recession? Not necessarily, for several reasons:

First, as we note in the Apply the Concept, “Trying to Hit a Moving Target: Making Policy with ‘Real-Time’ Data,” in Macroeconomics, Chapter 15, Section 15.3 (Economics, Chapter 25, Section 25.3): “The GDP data the BEA provides are frequently revised, and the revisions can be large enough that the actual state of the economy can be different for what it at first appears to be.”

Second, even though business writers often define a recession as being at least two consecutive quarters of declining real GDP, the National Bureau of Economic Research has a broader definition: “A recession is a significant decline in activity across the economy, lasting more than a few months, visible in industrial production, employment, real income, and wholesale-retail trade.” Particularly given the volatile movements in real GDP during and after the pandemic, it’s possible that even if real GDP declines during the second quarter of 2022, the NBER might not decide to label the period as being a recession.

Third, and most importantly, there are indications in the underlying data that the U.S. economy performed better during the first quarter of 2022 than the estimate of declining real GDP would indicate. In a blog post in January discussing the BEA’s advance estimate of real GDP during the fourth quarter of 2021, we noted that the majority of the 6.9 percent increase in real GDP that quarter was attributable to inventory accumulation. The earlier table indicates that the same was true during the first quarter of 2022: 60 percent of the decline in real GDP during the quarter was the result of a 0.84 decline in inventory investment.

We don’t know whether the decline in inventories indicates that firms had trouble meeting demand for goods from current inventories or whether they decided to reverse some of the increases in inventories from the previous quarter. With supply chain disruptions continuing as China grapples with another wave of Covid-19, firms may be having difficulty gauging how easily they can replace goods sold from their current inventories. Note the corresponding point that the decline in sales of domestic product (line 2 in the table) was smaller than the decline in real GDP.

The table below shows changes in the components of real GDP. Note the very large decline exports and in purchases of goods and services by the federal government. (Recall from Macroeconomics, Chapter 16, Section 16.1, the distinction between government purchases of goods and services and total government expenditures, which include transfer payments.) The decline in federal defense spending was particularly large. It seems likely from media reports that the escalation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will lead Congress and President Biden to increase defense spending.

Notice also that increases in the non-government components of aggregate demand remained fairly strong: personal consumption expenditures increased 2.7 percent, gross private domestic investment increased 2.3 percent, and imports surged by 17.7 percent. These data indicate that private demand in the U.S. economy remains strong.

So, should we conclude that the economy will shrug off the decline in real GDP during the first quarter and expand during the remainder of the year? Unfortunately, there are still clouds on the horizon. First, there are the difficult to predict effects of continuing supply chain problems and of the war in Ukraine. Second, the Federal Reserve has begun tightening monetary policy. Whether Fed Chair Jerome Powell will be able to bring about a soft landing, slowing inflation significantly while not causing a large jump in unemployment, remains the great unknown of economic policy. Finally, if high inflation rates persist, households and firms may respond in ways that are difficult to predict and, may, in particular decide to reduce their spending from the current strong levels.

In short, the macroeconomic forecast is cloudy!

Source: The BEA’s web site can be found here.

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.