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What the new GDP numbers tell us about stimulus

at 12:36 PM ET, 07/29/2011

Plenty of conservatives are peeking at this morning’s grim GDP numbers, as well as the downward revisions to previous years, and concluding that the stimulus clearly must have failed. “But remember,” snarks James Pethokoukis, “no matter how bad the economy is, Obama stimulus still created 3 million jobs, right?”

That’s one way to look at it. Another is to dig a little deeper into the new GDP numbers, which tell a different story. As Moody’s chief economist Mark Zandi told me this morning, the revisions suggest that the recession following the financial crisis was much, much more severe than we’d thought—the economy actually shrank at a 8.9 percent annual rate the fourth quarter of 2008 and 6.7 percent in the first quarter of 2009 (earlier estimates had shown a smaller, 5.9 percent annualized drop across the two quarters).

Then, Congress passed the stimulus bill, the fall in growth dwindled to 0.7 percent in the second quarter, and, by the third quarter of 2009, we had 1.7 percent growth. “We went from negative to positive at precisely the time that the stimulus was providing maximum benefit in terms of tax cuts and spending increases,” Zandi says. “The numbers actually reinforce the importance of the stimulus in jump-starting a recovery.” What the stimulus didn’t do, however, was raise employment to the levels that the White House had predicted — partly because the economy was in worse shape than anyone, even the official data-crunchers, knew.

Of course, the stimulus only lasted two years, winding down in the end of 2010. And what happened then? As Dean Baker, an economist at the Center on Economic and Policy Research observes, “The downward revision to the first quarter data coupled with the revision of the fourth quarter growth to 2.3 percent from 3.1 percent, suggests that the winding down of the stimulus has seriously dampened growth.” Zandi agrees: “If fiscal policy had simply stayed neutral, the numbers suggest we would have had around 2 percent growth these past two quarters, which isn’t great, but it’s a lot better than what we actually had.” Except fiscal policy wasn’t neutral—it was shrinking. The stimulus wound down, that extra government spending started disappearing, and, with it, economic growth dwindled.

What’s more, fiscal policy is set to keep shrinking. Remember that the payroll tax holiday and emergency unemployment insurance, both of which were extended in the 2010 tax deal, are scheduled to run out soon. These cuts will amount to $220 billion — about 1.6 percent of GDP. On top of that, Congress will likely cut short-term spending by a still-unknown amount in the debt-ceiling deal. Yet nothing we’ve encountered in the past few years suggests that will aid the recovery in any way.

 
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