The long-awaited report on economic growth in the third quarter was released Friday morning, and was a somewhat pleasant surprise.
After declining from an annualized growth rate of 5.0% in the fourth quarter of last year, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth declined to 3.7% in the first quarter of this year, and to just 1.7% in the second quarter.
It had many economists worried about a double-dip back into recession, especially after economic reports for July and August, the first two months of the third quarter, showed sharp declines in auto sales, home sales, and consumer and business confidence.
Some economists were projecting third quarter growth could be as low as 0.6%, and headed to negative growth (recession), although the consensus forecast was that GDP would be up 2.1% in the third quarter.
So, it was good news for the economy that the consensus got it right, with the report showing third quarter GDP improved to a 2.0% growth rate.
Equally good news within the report was that the growth was propelled by a 2.6% increase in consumer spending, since consumer spending accounts for 70% of the U.S. economy. Federal government spending also added to GDP, rising 8.8%, following a 9.1% increase in the second quarter.
In the other direction, the U.S. trade deficit continued to weigh on growth, as imports grew by 17.4% while exports rose only 5.0%. And corporate pessimism weighed on business spending.
Although still anemic and too slow to improve the employment picture to any degree, the news that the economy turned up some in the third quarter was good news for Main Street.
However, the news may not have been all that good for Wall Street.
As I noted in my column last weekend, the Fed seemed to panic after the stock market plunged in August in its worst August in years, as economic reports continued to worsen. The Fed seemed to give up on its prediction of only a temporary slowdown in growth in the summer months but not into recession, and then a return of growth in the second half and through next year.
In early September it was suddenly hinting at, and then virtually promising, a significant round of additional quantitative easing to rescue the economy.
As a result stock markets around the world began rallying off their late August lows, and produced the rarity of a substantial rally in September and October, historically the worst two months of the year.
However, now we have the report that GDP growth did not decline further in the third quarter, but improved, while recent economic indicators show retail sales, home sales, manufacturing, and consumer confidence have all ticked up, while unemployment claims have fallen for three straight weeks
So, as I suggested in my column last weekend, the Fed may now be wishing it had never mentioned quantitative easing, or virtually guaranteed markets a large program of easing, the extent of which it will announce after its FOMC meeting next Wednesday.
Global stock markets have factored in the substantial easing program that seemed to be promised, with projections that it could amount to a ‘shock and awe’ approach of as much as $1.5 trillion. That projection and the big stock market rally factoring the expectation into stock prices, has lifted not only the stock market, but investor sentiment, which is now at an extreme of optimism and complacency often associated with market tops.
So, the market has to worry that these economic reports that are good for the economy may not be so good for the stock market, if it results in the Fed disappointing next week by initiating only a token amount of quantitative easing to keep its promise on easing, and the stock market has to factor out the shock and awe easing it spent two months factoring in.
Looking out further however, the third year of the four-year presidential cycle, historically the most positive of the four years, is now but a couple of months away.
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