Why US economic growth is weaker than it looks

Newton, Iowa was featured on a "60 Minutes" story for how the economy was affecting the citizens there. Scott Pelley revisited the town two years later to report on any progress it has seen.
CBS News

COMMENTARY The U.S. economy grew faster than expected in last year's fourth quarter, according to the Commerce Department. Gross domestic product expanded at a 3 percent annual rate, an upward revision from the government's previous estimate of 2.8 percent.

Or not. Most of that growth came from the economic equivalent of busy work, putting real GDP closer to 1 percent. Out of that official 3 percent increase in the last three months of 2011, 1.88 percent came from a change in business inventories. That means stuff being moved into warehouses.

In bad economic times, this can exaggerate growth. In the last quarter of 2009 and the first quarter of 2010, for instance, the Commerce Department said the economy grew 3.8 percent and 3.9 percent, respectively. Subtract inventory and those numbers shrink to -0.13 percent and -0.3 percent. Considering that the nation's unemployment rate during those periods averaged 9.8 percent, which number do you think better reflects the real state of the economy?

A closer look at the Commerce Department's numbers also raises other questions. According to the report, the price indexes for GDP (which measures prices paid by U.S. residents) fell from 2.6 percent in the third quarter to 0.9 percent in the last period. In other words, prices dropped by about 70 percent. Really? Where?

There was slightly better news in a government report issued today that said consumer spending increased 0.2 percent in January, while income was up 0.3 percent. Here's how the Wall Street Journal interpreted those numbers:

Consumers spent more because it turns out they had more cash to spend. Personal income in the third and fourth quarters were revised up so that income at the end of 2011 was almost $100 billion higher than first thought. The new-found money went both to increased spending and higher savings.

I'm not sure where they got this higher savings number. According to the feds' Bureau of Economic Analysis:

Personal saving -- [disposable personal income] less personal outlays -- was $540.6 billion in January, compared with $552.1 billion in December. The personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of disposable income -- was 4.6 percent in January, compared with 4.7 percent in December.

Now, admittedly, I went to public schools, but I'm still pretty sure 540 is less than 552 and 4.6 is less than 4.7, That indicates savings shrank, not rose as the WSJ contends. But what do I know?

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    Constantine von Hoffman is a freelance writer and writing coach. His work has appeared in outlets such as Harvard Business Review, NPR, Sierra magazine, Brandweek, CIO, The Boston Herald, TheStreet.com, CSO, and Boston Magazine.