White House Confidence that US is Not in Recession is Misplaced

White House CEA Chairman Ed Lazear expressed confidence to the Wall Street Journal today that the country is not in recession. I, like Menzie Chinn, am surprised that Lazear is willing to put his reputation on the line in this way.

It is true that the Commerce Department BEA’s advanced estimate of first-quarter GDP growth was still above zero (+0.6%). But there are three reasons not to take this number too seriously.
(1) Revisions in these numbers are usually substantial, so the final number could easily turn out to be negative — or twice as high.
(2) Even if the +0.6% number were to hold up, it can be entirely accounted for by measured inventory investment. In other words, real final demand fell rather than rose in the first quarter. It is plain that this inventory accumulation was not the outcome of deliberate decisions by bullish firms to add to their inventories in anticipation of a booming economy. Rather it was almost certainly unintended inventory accumulation, as goods sat unsold on store shelves and in warehouses. This overhang makes it more likely that inventory accumulation will be negative in the 2nd quarter. (Admittedly, rising exports from the weak dollar and rising consumption from the tax rebate checks could outweigh that particular factor, and we could scrape along the ground for another quarter at near-zero growth).
(3) As Martin Feldstein has been pointing out (e.g., in the FT), it is a misinterpretation of the GDP statistics to say that growth remained positive in the first quarter. Rather GDP for QI as a whole was estimated to have been 0.6% higher as compared to QIV as a whole. The Commerce Department does not report monthly GDP estimates, but MacroAdvisers does, and these data suggest that monthly GDP has been declining since January.

There are other reasons as well to consider it likely that a recession may have started as early as January. The NBER Business Cycle Dating Committee, which declares when recessions start, looks at lots of data. But the most important information, alongside GDP, is the jobs data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment, like GDP, offers a comprehensive measure across the economy, but it has the advantage of being available monthly and with shorter lags. The employment data suggest that the recession may have started in January.

It is certainly possible that it will turn out, in the end, that the economy escaped recession in the first quarter. Even if that is the case, however, it is difficult to be optimistic about the rest of the year. I can’t remember a time when there have been so many worrisome danger signals: depressed household balance sheets, mortgage defaults, high oil prices, low consumer confidence, … . The odds of a recession sometime this year must be rated high.

Fed Chairman Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Paulson have wisely reined in the “happy talk” with which the initial sub-prime mortgage crisis was greeted last year. (Remember “the crisis looks contained”?) If I were Ed Lazear, I would follow their lead.