Don Draper, Mad Men's master advertiser likes to say "when you don't like what they are saying, change the conversation." When it comes to the current economic weakness, which was confirmed again today by the release of lower than expected GDP data, Washington would love do just that. Fortunately for them, they consistently outdo the master minds of Madison Avenue when it comes to misdirection. If the government doesn't like what people are saying, they don't bother just to change the conversation, they change the meaning of the words.
The latest example of this was revealed earlier this week when the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) announced new methods of calculating Gross Domestic Product (GDP) that will immediately make the economy "bigger' than it used to be. The changes focus heavily on how money spent on research and development (R&D) and the production of "intangible" assets like movies, music, and television programs will be accounted for. Declaring such expenditures to be "investments" will immediately increase U.S. GDP by about three percent. Such an upgrade would immediately increase the theoretic size of the U.S economy and may well lead to the perception of faster growth. In reality these smoke and mirror alterations are no different from changes made to the inflation and unemployment yardsticks that for years have convinced Americans that the economy is better than it actually is.
Today's data release confirms that the economic "recovery" is weaker than expected and remains heavily dependent on Federal support. Personal spending was indeed up 3.2%, the biggest jump in two years, but real earnings were down by 5.3%, the biggest fall since 2009. Not surprisingly the buying was made possible by a drop in the savings rate, which came in at just 2.6%, the lowest since the 4th quarter of 2007. No doubt, rising home prices and falling mortgage rates (made possible by Fed stimulus) allowed Americans to refinance their homes and to borrow and spend the money that they did not earn. With GDP continuing to disappoint, a statistical make-over couldn't come at a more convenient time.