Ranking U.S. Economic Recoveries

The Wall Street Journal has a lovely graphic this morning illustrating the strengths and weaknesses of U.S. economic recoveries since World War II.

No surprise, the current recovery is long on weaknesses and short on strengths:

The graphic is based on a very similar one the IMF included in its recent overview of the U.S. economy (officially known as the 2011 Article IV Consultation).  I’ve pasted the original IMF graphic below.

Continue reading “Ranking U.S. Economic Recoveries”

Zanran: Google for Data?

Zanran is a new search engine, now in beta testing, that focuses on charts and tables. As its website says:

Zanran helps you to find ‘semi-structured’ data on the web. This is the numerical data that people have presented as graphs and tables and charts. For example, the data could be a graph in a PDF report, or a table in an Excel spreadsheet, or a barchart shown as an image in an HTML page. This huge amount of information can be difficult to find using conventional search engines, which are focused primarily on finding text rather than graphs, tables and bar charts.

Put more simply: Zanran is Google for data.

This is a stellar idea. The web holds phenomenal amounts of data that are hard to find buried inside documents. And Zanran offers a fast way to find and scan through documents that may have relevant material. Particularly helpful is the ability to hover your cursor over each document to see the chart Zanran’s thinks you are interested in before you click through to the document.

Zanran is clearly in beta, however, and has some major challenges ahead. Perhaps most important are determining which results should rank high and identifying recent data. If you type “united states GDP” into Zanran, for example, the top results are rather idiosyncratic and there’s nothing on the first few pages that directs you to the latest data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Google, in contrast, has the BEA as its third result. And its first result is a graphical display of GDP data via Google’s Public Data project. Too bad, though, it goes up only to 2009. For some reason, both Google and Zanran think the CIA is the best place to get U.S. GDP data. It is a good source for international comparisons, but it falls out of date.

Here’s wishing Zanran good luck in strengthening its search results as its competes with Google, Wolfram Alpha, and others in the data search.

A Tepid Quarter for GDP

Thursday morning brought the first official look at GDP growth in the first quarter. Headline growth was a disappointing, if not surprising, 1.8%.

Here’s my usual graph of how various components of the economy contributed to overall growth:

Consumers continued to spend at a moderate pace; their spending grew at a 2.7% rate, thus adding 1.9 percentage points to overall growth. Equipment and software investment (up at a 12.6% rate), inventories, and exports also contributed to growth.

Residential investment fell back into negative territory, reflecting the latest down leg in the housing market. But the real negatives were structures (down at a 21.7% rate, thus cutting 0.6 percentage points from growth) and government (down at a 5.2% rate). Defense spending fell sharply (11.7% rate), and state and local continued its decline (down at a 3.3% rate).

Note: As usual, imports subtracted from growth as conventionally measured. As discussed in this post and this post, I’d like to see GDP contributions data that allocate imports across the other sectors. Such data would reveal, for example, how much consumer spending contributed to growth in the U.S. economy itself. Presumably it’s less than the 1.9 percentage points shown in the chart, which reflects consumer spending that was satisfied by both domestic and international production, but we don’t know by how much.

October Rail Traffic – Still Upbeat

October was another solid month for America’s railroads, according to the Association for American Railroads. October traffic was 11% higher than the depressed levels of a year ago:

Intermodal traffic (think trailers and containers) is up 14% over 2009, thus returning to 2008 levels:

Carloads (think bulk materials like coal, grains, minerals, and chemicals plus autos) are up almost 9%:

Another Tepid Quarter for GDP

BEA released its first estimates for third-quarter GDP yesterday. Headline growth was a disappointing, if not surprising, 2.0%.

Here’s my usual graph of how various components of the economy contributed to overall growth:

Housing fell back into the red, while non-residential structures eked out a small gain. Consumers continued to spend at a moderate pace (consumer spending grew at a 2.6% rate, thus adding 1.8 percentage points to growth). But the big stories were the continued boost from inventories, and the continued drag (in GDP-accounting terms) from imports.

The pessimistic take on inventories (see, for example, this tweet from Nouriel Roubini) is that the third quarter build up was unintentional, and thus is bearish for fourth quarter growth. The optimistic take, I suppose, is that maybe businesses see stronger demand ahead. But that feels rather, er, speculative.

For my usual set of caveats about the import figures (and, therefore, all of these figures), see my last post on the GDP numbers.

Happy World Statistics Day

Collecting and disseminating useful data about the economy, government finances, demographics, health, the environment, etc. can be a difficult business. Survey methodologies and estimation techniques are inevitably open to legitimate criticism and also attract a good deal of not-so-legitimate criticism (for examples of both, see the debate over the “birth death model” in estimating payroll employment). But all in all, I think our official statisticians perform a valuable service.

So in honor of the first World Statistics Day, let me quote from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon:

I commend the dedication that many statistical experts bring to their reports and publications.  They carry out an essential public service — one that promotes peace and democracy by giving citizens reliable and impartial public information about their communities.  Their core values — service, integrity and professionalism — deserve full support in all nations.

August Rail Traffic, An Upbeat Economic Indicator

August was a busy month for America’s railroads, according to the Association for American Railroads. Traffic spiked up, as often happens during the month. More importantly, August traffic was 11% higher than a year ago (the same gain as reported in July):

Carloads (think bulk materials like coal, grains, minerals, and chemicals plus autos) are up about 6% over 2009:

Intermodal traffic (think trailers and containers) is up almost 20%, thus returning to 2008 levels:

Further Signs of a Slowdown

As expected, BEA’s second stab at GDP growth for the second quarter was even less inspiring than the first. Headline growth was a tepid 1.6%, down from the 2.4% previously reported. Consumer spending and business spending on equipment and software were actually stronger than earlier estimates, but business structures, inventories, and exports all weakened, while imports (which deduct from GDP the way BEA calculates it) grew faster than previously expected.

Last month I pointed out one, small silver lining in the original GDP report: every major category of demand had increased. That is still true in the revised data, although structures just squeaked by with a miniscule 0.01 percentage point contribution to overall growth:

Investment showed particular strength. Business investment in equipment and software (E&S) grew at a 25% pace, thus adding about 1.5 percentage points to overall GDP growth. Boosted by the end (hopefully permanent) of the new homebuyer tax credit, housing investment grew at a bubble-like 27% pace (adding about 0.6 percentage points to GDP).

Despite solid growth in disposable incomes–up 4.4% adjusted for inflation–consumer spending grew at only a 2.0% pace.  As a result, the saving rate increased to 6.1%, compared with 5.5% in the first quarter.

And then there are imports. As I’ve discussed before, BEA calculates GDP by adding up all the components of demand for U.S. products–consumers, businesses, governments, and export markets–and then subtracting the portion of that demand that is supplied by imports. That means that any growth in imports appears as though it subtracts from overall economic growth.

That happened in a big way in the second quarter. Imports grew at a brisk 32% pace, thus subtracting (using BEA’s accounting approach) 4.5 percentage points from overall growth. Which is why all those blue bars in the graph net out to only 1.6% GDP growth.

I should also note that BEA’s calculation of contributions to GDP growth, which I graphed above, is subject to the same criticism that I’ve leveled at the claim that consumer spending is 70% of the economy. In a perfect world, an appropriate share of the imports (the red bar) would be netted against each of the components of demand (the blue bars). The result would be a graph of contributions that would truly illustrate how much each category of demand actually contributed to U.S. GDP growth. I hope to take a crack at that in the future (but I said that last month, too).

“Tracking” the Economy

The fine folks at the Association of American Railroads are out with their latest edition of Rail Time Indicators. Total traffic (carloads plus intermodal) in July was about 11% higher than the dismal levels of a year ago, but remains about 10% below earlier years:

The rebound has been weaker in carloads (think bulk materials like coal, grains, minerals, and chemicals plus autos); they are up about 4% over 2009:

And stronger in intermodal (think trailers and containers), which are up about 17%: