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GDP revised downward. And the future’s not too bright, either.

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In recent months, the economic news has been slightly better than expected. Not great, but okay. But that encouraging trend halted today, as the Commerce Department revised its third quarter GDP growth numbers downward. By a lot. Instead of growing at a 2.5 percent annualized rate last quarter, as we initially thought, the United States grew at just a 2 percent pace. If policymakers had been lulled into complacency by last month’s warm, fuzzy GDP numbers — well, they shouldn’t have been. Especially because the numbers could easily get worse.

Mark Lennihan/AP

Economist Justin Wolfers has been rummaging through the new GDP data and observes that the underlying fundamentals don’t look terribly encouraging either. He notes that the Gross Domestic Income data has been more accurate than the GDP figures of late — GDP revisions tend to move toward GDI, rather than vice versa. And the GDI has only grown at a 0.3 percent pace the past two quarters. That means it’s possible we’ve been growing much, much more slowly than the already-middling rate that the current numbers suggest. “At this point,” Wolfers notes, “we are only one small data revision away from declaring the US is in a recession, which began in mid-2011. Seriously.”

And even if that doesn’t happen, the future isn’t looking too rosy. Already this morning, the contagion in Europe is starting to spread to once-safe countries like Austria and Belgium, which are seeing their bond yields spike to worrisome levels. And, as Suzy reported yesterday, the United States can expect a further fiscal drag on its economy next year if the unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut expire (not at all unlikely at this point, given the supercommittee’s failure). If the economy was growing rapidly, we might have enough momentum to speed right over these bumps. But that momentum’s getting harder and harder to detect.

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