Washington - The United States economy has slowed considerably this year from a year ago, according to a report from the Commerce Department released on Friday.
The country’s gross domestic product, a broad measure of the goods and services produced across the economy, grew at an annual rate of 1.3 percent in the second quarter, after having grown at an annual rate of 0.4 percent in the first quarter — a number that itself was revised sharply down from earlier estimates of 1.9 percent. Both figures were well below economists’ expectations.
Data revisions going back to 2003 also showed that the 2007-2009 recession was deeper, and the recovery to date weaker, than originally estimated. Indeed, the latest figures show that the nation’s economy is still smaller than it was in 2007, when the Great Recession officially began.
“The word for this report is ‘shocking,’ ” said John Ryding, chief economist at RDQ Economics. “With slow growth, higher inflation and almost no consumer spending growth, it is very tough to find good news.”
The latest figures come as Congress is debating how to put the nation on a more sustainable fiscal path, with measures that some economists worry could further slow the economy and even throw it back into recession. Even in the absence of further austerity measures, some of the government’s current stimulative policies, such as the payroll tax cut, are phasing out, and state and local governments are slashing spending dramatically.
Such fiscal retrenchment was already expected to be a drag on growth in the coming year; the Commerce Department’s report and the Washington debt talks only magnify those concerns.
“There’s nothing that you can look at here that is signaling some revival in growth in the second half of the year, and in fact we may see another catastrophically weak quarter next quarter if things go wrong next week,” said Nigel Gault, chief United States economist at IHS Global Insight. By “things going wrong,” he said he means “if Congress actually starts implementing a massive contraction by suddenly cutting government spending immediately,” as many Republican representatives hope to do.
Prolonging the continuing talks in Washington to raise the amount of money the United States can borrow could also damage prospects for growth in the third quarter, as businesses and families wait to make big purchases until the threat of federal default passes.
“Even if everything gets done, there is still a big hit coming from uncertainty,” said Paul Dales, a senior United States economist at Capital Economics. “Companies have probably put projects on hold and postponed hiring.”
Usually, a sharp recession is followed by a sharp recovery, meaning the recovery growth rate is far faster than the long-term average growth rate; last quarter, though, output grew at only about one-third of the average rate seen in the 60 years preceding the Great Recession. As a result, the country’s output is far below its potential.
Particularly distressing to economists is that consumer spending — which, alongside housing, usually leads the way in a recovery — has been extraordinarily weak in recent quarters. Inflation-adjusted consumer spending in the second quarter barely budged, increasing just 0.1 percent, the Commerce Department report showed.
“People are spending more, but that spending is being absorbed in higher prices, not in buying more stuff,” Mr. Ryding said.
Even the brightest parts of the report were seen as bittersweet. For example, motor vehicle output fell much less than was predicted after the natural disasters in Japan disrupted supply chains. But that means there will likely be a less dramatic bounce back in autos in the coming months, which economists were counting on to raise growth rates later this year.
The economy’s slow growth rate is largely responsible for stubbornly high joblessness across the country, economists say. As of June, 14 million Americans were actively looking for work, and the average duration of unemployment has been reaching record highs month after month. Businesses are sitting on a lot of cash, but are still reluctant to hire because there is so much uncertainty about the future of the economy and whether they will continue to have a steady flow of customers.
Slow economic growth takes not only a human toll, but a fiscal one as well. Tepid output increases mean slower growth in the tax revenue needed to pay down the nation’s debt.
Washington, therefore, has a delicate balancing act in its current debt ceiling debates. Given the unsustainable debt trajectory that the economy is on — primarily because of the country’s growing health care obligations — Congress needs to impose greater fiscal discipline. But imposing too much too soon, or being too focused on the wrong types of spending cuts, could be self-defeating by weakening growth so greatly that tax revenue falls and requires the country to borrow even more.
Given inflation concerns, it also seemed unlikely that the Federal Reserve will swoop in with another round of monetary easing to goose growth.
“There’s not going to be additional monetary stimulus, and it’s hard to imagine any fiscal stimulus given the current discussion in Washington,” Mr. Ryding said. “So what’s going to get us out of this? The inevitable conclusion is time, and that’s not very satisfactory.”
This article, "Recovery Still Slow as New Data Show Little Growth," originally appeared in The New York Times.