December 3, 2020

Why the Best G.D.P. Report Ever Won’t Mean the Economy Has Healed

It isn’t. The big drop in output in the second quarter means that third-quarter growth is being measured against a smaller base. A simple illustration of the same phenomenon: If you have $100 and lose half, you have $50. If you then manage to increase your money by half, that will bring your holdings to $75, not all the way back to $100.

To really evaluate the recovery, it makes sense to focus less on quarter-to-quarter changes and instead look at how the economy compares to the fourth quarter of last year, before the pandemic began. If economists’ forecasts are correct, G.D.P. will be 3 to 4 percent lower in the third quarter than at the end of last year. By comparison, G.D.P. shrank 4 percent over the entire year and a half of the Great Recession a decade ago.

In other words: Even after the record-setting rebound in the third quarter, the economy is still in a hole as large as the worst point of many past recessions.

Here is where things get really confusing: Third-quarter growth will look historically strong, even though all three months that made up the quarter were relatively weak.

That seeming paradox is the result of how the government reports G.D.P. statistics.

Quarterly G.D.P. figures represent the average amount of economic output over a three-month period. In normal times, output changes only gradually — growing or shrinking only 2 or 3 percent per year — so the change from the first month of a quarter to the last is small.

Last spring, however, changes that would ordinarily take years played out in a matter of weeks. Monthly estimates from IHS Markit show that G.D.P. fell more than 5 percent in March and more than 10 percent in April, before rising roughly 5 percent in May and 6 percent in June.

Quarterly averages obscure those big swings, however. G.D.P. fell 1.3 percent in the first quarter (when two relatively normal months were followed by the big drop in March) and 9 percent in the second (when output plunged in the first month of the quarter then rose in the next two).

Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/27/business/economy/gdp-economy.html

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