2.8% Growth: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in Today's GDP Report

The economy grew by 2.8 percent in the final quarter of 2011, the fastest rate of expansion last year. But GDP growth was only 1.7 percent for the entire year, compared with 3 percent in 2010. In English: The economy is still growing in fits and starts, and even the starts aren't all that impressive.

The good news is that, contrary to our concerns this summer, we seem to have skirted clear of another recession. The bad news is that 1.7 percent growth is not the way a recovery is supposed to look. It isn't even, technically speaking, a recovery. And the ugly news is that, at a time when nominal GDP (not adjusted for inflation) should be growing by more than 5 percent, NDGP growth was only 3.2 percent last quarter, which indicates the upward pressure on prices and wages is very weak.

Here's a look at Reuters' great graph of the contributions to GDP growth going back to before the recession (Macro reminder: GDP = Personal consumption + Investment + Government spending + Net trade. The investment category includes residential/non-residential fixed investment and inventory investment, represented below by "stocks.")

http://product.datastream.com/economics/gateway.aspx?guid=b66cbdf6-f0cf-4720-93c1-fc6990cc012f&chartname=US%20-%20contributions%20to%20GDP%20growth&groupname=Growth%20/%20activity&shortcode=&owner=ZRTN179&action=REFRESH

Three highlights of the report:

1) Total government spending fell again, wrapping up a year when government shrunk by 2.1 percent, the biggest decline in exactly 30 years.

2) The real growth was in "stocks": 1.9 percentage points of last quarter's growth was supported by an inventory rebound -- the red bar in the graph above.

3) Personal consumption disappointed economists, who had predicted big things for retail after the record-setting Black Friday numbers. This morning's report suggests we were overoptimistic about holiday spending.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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