The United States almost certainly just experienced its fastest three months of economic growth on record. That doesn’t mean the economy is strong.
The Commerce Department on Thursday will release its preliminary estimate of economic growth for the third quarter. Economists surveyed by FactSet expect it to show that gross domestic product — the broadest measure of goods and services produced in the United States — grew about 7 percent from the second quarter, or 30 percent on an annualized basis (more about that in a bit).
If those forecasts are even close to correct, it would represent the fastest growth since reliable records began after World War II. Until now, the best quarter was a 3.9 percent gain (16.7 percent annualized) in 1950.
This G.D.P. report will be particularly closely watched, arriving as the last major piece of economic data before Election Day next Tuesday.
But it doesn’t make sense to think about Thursday’s report in isolation. The third quarter’s record-setting growth is effectively an echo of the second quarter’s equally unprecedented contraction, when business shutdowns and stay-at-home orders led gross domestic product to fall by 9 percent. Strong growth was inevitable as the economy began to reopen.
While the economy has revived considerably since last spring, it is far short of its level before the pandemic. And progress is slowing.
“Employment has come back to some extent, but the unemployment rate is still high, wage and salary income is still low,” said Ben Herzon, executive director of IHS Markit, a forecasting firm. “Demand is still being depressed by the pandemic.”
In superlative-laden Facebook ads purchased days before the report, President Trump and his supporters have already begun to promote it as evidence of a strong rebound. The truth is more complicated. Here is how economists are thinking about the report, and why the numbers could be misleading.
The economy is still in a hole.
If G.D.P. fell by 9 percent in the second quarter, and rose by about 7 percent in the third quarter, it might sound as if the economy is almost back to where it started.
It isn’t. The big drop in output in the second quarter means that third-quarter growth is being measured against a smaller base. A simple illustration of the same phenomenon: If you have $100 and lose half, you have $50. If you then manage to increase your money by half, that will bring your holdings to $75, not all the way back to $100.
To really evaluate the recovery, it makes sense to focus less on quarter-to-quarter changes and instead look at how the economy compares to the fourth quarter of last year, before the pandemic began. If economists’ forecasts are correct, G.D.P. will be 3 to 4 percent lower in the third quarter than at the end of last year. By comparison, G.D.P. shrank 4 percent over the entire year and a half of the Great Recession a decade ago.
In other words: Even after the record-setting rebound in the third quarter, the economy is still in a hole as large as the worst point of many past recessions.
Most ‘third-quarter growth’ actually happened in the second quarter.
Here is where things get really confusing: Third-quarter growth will look historically strong, even though all three months that made up the quarter were relatively weak.
That seeming paradox is the result of how the government reports G.D.P. statistics.
Quarterly G.D.P. figures represent the average amount of economic output over a three-month period. In normal times, output changes only gradually — growing or shrinking only 2 or 3 percent per year — so the change from the first month of a quarter to the last is small.
Last spring, however, changes that would ordinarily take years played out in a matter of weeks. Monthly estimates from IHS Markit show that G.D.P. fell more than 5 percent in March and more than 10 percent in April, before rising roughly 5 percent in May and 6 percent in June.
Quarterly averages obscure those big swings, however. G.D.P. fell 1.3 percent in the first quarter (when two relatively normal months were followed by the big drop in March) and 9 percent in the second (when output plunged in the first month of the quarter then rose in the next two).
The big rebound in May and June meant that the third quarter effectively had a head start. In fact, even if there had been zero growth in July, August or September, and the economy had stayed exactly the same size as at the end of the second quarter, that would still represent 5.4 percent quarterly growth — the strongest gain on record.
Of course, the economy did experience some growth during the third quarter. IHS Markit estimates that G.D.P. grew about 1.5 percent in July and less than 1 percent in August and September. But those are much weaker gains than the quarterly G.D.P. figures might seem to suggest.
“Statistics that we’re used to using for small and slow movements are basically broken when it comes to looking at large and rapid movements,” said Justin Wolfers, a University of Michigan economist who occasionally contributes to The New York Times. “Typically a recession plays out over many quarters. This one played out over many weeks. So looking at the data through the lens of quarterly data misses all the action.”
Annualized figures are even more misleading.
Gross domestic product in the United States is usually reported at an annual rate, meaning how much output would grow or shrink if that rate of change were sustained for a full year. That convention makes it easier to compare data collected over different time periods. But during periods of rapid change, annual rates can be confusing.
In the second quarter, for example, G.D.P. fell at an annual rate of 31.4 percent. That makes it sound as if the economy shrank by nearly one-third, when in fact it shrank by a bit less than a tenth.
To avoid confusion, in the coverage of Thursday’s report, The Times plans to emphasize simple, nonannual percentage changes from both the second quarter and the fourth quarter of last year, before the pandemic began. (We gave a more detailed explanation of this decision before the second-quarter report in July.)
Benchmarks make a big difference.
When the pandemic first hit last spring, many economists and policymakers hoped that by shutting down nonessential businesses and encouraging people to stay home, the United States could quickly bring the virus under control, then reopen with minimal lasting economic damage. That would allow for a “V-shaped” recession and recovery — a steep drop, followed by an equally steep rebound.
Relative to that expectation, the U.S. response has been a failure. The economy bounced back in May and June, but only partway. Most forecasters don’t expect G.D.P. to return to its pre-pandemic level until late next year at the earliest.
Compared with forecasts from April and May, however, the economic rebound has beaten expectations. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, for example, released a forecast in late April showing a steeper second-quarter decline and a weaker third-quarter rebound than ended up happening. The office also expected the unemployment rate to stay above 10 percent through the end of this year; instead, the rate fell below that benchmark in August, and fell further to 7.9 percent in September.
The bad news is that progress has slowed sharply since that spring rebound. Many economists have recently revised downward their forecasts for the end of the year, in part because Congress did not provide more stimulus money before the election.
“The recovery has been faster than expected, but it is bending off pretty sharply,” Mr. Herzon said. “We got a sharp recovery, but there appears to have been a limit to that recovery.”