GDP Growth Returns in Q3

As expected, the economy grew at a healthy pace in the third quarter, expanding at a 3.5% annual pace according to this morning’s data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Among the highlights:

  • Consumer spending grew at a 3.4% pace, the fastest since the first quarter of 2007. A substantial fraction of that growth reflects vehicle purchases, which were temporarily boosted by the cash-for-clunkers program.
  • Residential investment grew for the first time since late 2005, driven in part by the tax credit for new homebuyers.
  • Imports rose for the first time in two years. Most of that increase came from goods, which is consistent with the idea that auto imports increased in response to cash-for-clunkers.

You may notice a trend here, as government policies had a significant effect on the pattern of growth in the third quarter.

As I’ve mentioned before, I think one of the best ways to understand the pattern of growth is to look at the contributions that each major sector made to the overall growth rate:

Q3 Growth Contributions (2009 Advance)

As you can see, consumers, inventories, and exports were the main drivers of Q3 growth, while imports were the main drag.

Q3 represents a striking change from Q2 (shown in the next chart), when the economy contracted at a 0.7% pace and private spending was weak across the board:

Broad Weakness in Q2 GDP (Third)

Note: If the idea of contributions to GDP growth is new to you, here’s a quick primer on how to understand these figures. Consumer spending makes up about 70% of the economy. Consumer spending rose at a 3.4% pace in the third quarter. Putting those figures together, we say that consumer spending contributed about 2.4 percentage points (70% x 3.4%, allowing for some rounding) to third quarter growth.