A Big Quarter


The Commerce Department announces very good growth during the previous quarter. Many observers declare the economy's troubles over. And the administration's supporters claim that the economy's turnaround validates its policies.

That's what happened 18 months ago, when a preliminary estimate put first-quarter 2002 growth at 5.8 percent. That was later revised down to 5.0. More important, growth in the next quarter slumped to 1.3 percent, and we now know that the economy wasn't really on the mend: after that brief spurt, the nation proceeded to lose another 600,000 jobs.

The same story unfolded in the third quarter of 2002, when growth rose to 4 percent, and the economy actually gained 200,000 jobs. But growth slipped back down to 1.4 percent, and job losses resumed.

My purpose is not to denigrate the impressive estimated 7.2 percent growth rate for the third quarter of 2003. It is, rather, to stress the obvious: we've had our hopes dashed in the past, and it remains to be seen whether this is just another one-hit wonder.

The weakness of that spurt 18 months ago was obvious to those who bothered to look at it closely. Half the growth came simply because businesses, having drawn down their inventories in the previous quarter, had to ramp up production even though demand was growing slowly. This time around growth has a much better foundation: final demand demand excluding changes in inventories actually grew even faster than G.D.P. So it's unlikely that growth will drop off as sharply as it did back then.

But you knew there would be a but there are still some reasons to wonder whether the economy has really turned the corner.

First, while there was a significant pickup in business investment, the bulk of last quarter's growth came from a huge surge in consumer spending, with a further boost from housing. These components of spending stayed strong even when the economy was weak, so there shouldn't have been any pent-up demand. Yet housing grew at a 20 percent rate, while spending on consumer durables (that's stuff like cars and TV sets) which last year grew three times as fast as the economy rose at an incredible 27 percent rate last quarter.

This can't go on in the long run, consumer spending can't outpace the growth in consumer income. Stephen Roach of Morgan Stanley has suggested, plausibly, that much of last quarter's consumer splurge was "borrowed" from the future: consumers took advantage of low-interest financing, cash from home refinancing and tax rebate checks to accelerate purchases they would otherwise have made later. If he's right, we'll see below-normal purchases and slower growth in the months ahead.

The big question, of course, is jobs. Despite all that growth in the third quarter, the number of jobs actually fell. And new claims for unemployment insurance, a leading indicator for the job market, still show no sign of a hiring boom. (By the way, for the last month there's been a peculiar pattern: each week, headlines declare that new claims fell from the previous week; a week later, the past week's number is revised upward, and the apparent decline disappears.)

And unless we start to see serious job growth by which I mean increases in payroll employment of more than 200,000 a month consumer spending will eventually slide, and bring growth down with it.

Still, it's possible that we really have reached a turning point. If so, does it validate the Bush economic program? Well, no.

Stimulating the economy in the short run is supposed to be easy, as long as you don't worry about how much debt you run up in the process. As William Gale of the Brookings Institution puts it, "Almost any tax cut or spending increase would succeed in boosting a sluggish economy if the Federal Reserve Board follows an accommodative monetary policy. . . . The key question is, therefore, not whether the proposals provide any short-term stimulus, but whether they are the most effective way to provide stimulus." Mr. Gale doesn't think the Bush tax cuts meet that criterion, and neither do I.

To put it more bluntly: it would be quite a trick to run the biggest budget deficit in the history of the planet, and still end a presidential term with fewer jobs than when you started. And despite yesterday's good news, that's a trick President Bush still seems likely to pull off.

Originally published in The New York Times, 10.31.03