If GDP Plunges, What Drags It Down?

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The closely followed Atlanta Federal Reserve GDP forecast has been revised down. And the drop happened quickly. On March 9, the forecast for first-quarter growth was 2.5%. Yesterday, it fell off a cliff to 1.9%. What happened in between may not have been made entirely clear by the bank’s researchers.

In comments, as the gross domestic product forecast was revised down:

After yesterday’s Consumer Price Index release from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and this morning’s retail sales report from the U.S. Census Bureau, the nowcast of first-quarter real personal consumption expenditures growth fell from 2.2 percent to 1.4 percent.

The consumer usually gets the blame or credit for GDP moves, since consumer spending is between two-thirds and three-quarters of GDP, depending on who is talking.

While retail sales and personal consumption are critical means to the end, which is to forecast the movement of the entire economy, they do not explain the general improvement in consumer confidence or the surge in confidence among CEOs shown in the most recent Business Roundtable study. Since many of the largest companies in the United States are consumer-facing, either CEOs are kidding themselves or they know something the Atlanta Fed does not.

Another issue that should be taken into account in any forecast of the first-quarter GDP is a broad look at financial forecasts from the S&P 500. Most companies made some specific comments about the first quarter when they released their first-quarter expectations. Looking back for a moment, of the S&P 500 companies that announced fourth-quarter 2017 earnings, about three-quarters of them beat forecasts. While there is no firm number on how many of these companies raised their guidance, the general tone of comments and forecasts was positive. The ongoing increase in the stock market is as good as any way to tell that those large companies like their prospects and have said so.

What drags the economy down early in the year, or at least makes growth lackluster and not moderate? Maybe personal spending, as taken from only one source, or retail sales, from one source as well, could be the reason. However, that is hardly enough to shave GDP forecasts substantially.

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