Monday, November 29, 2010

Third Quarter GDP Report for the US -- Can We Predict This Before the Report is Released?

The revision to third quarter 2010 GDP was released last week. The original estimate, 2.0%, was revised up to 2.5%, a more "respectable" number than the original. In the first release of each quarter's GDP number, inventories, exports, and imports are all approximated. Subsequent months will use available data to eliminate the "educated guesses" contained in the first estimate. That was the case for today's release. Here is a story discussing the GDP release.

As the official GDP releases represent somewhat "stale" data, we can approximate what they will entail using real-time data from asset markets, which has been a central theme of my classes. To do this, go to and on the middle right select the PerfChart (this stands for Performance Chart) that deals with the sectors of the S&P 500. To save you time and effort, here is the link.

First, choose a bar chart at the bottom left (second button from the left). Then, move the slider (bottom right) to cover the exact time period you desire. Here, I have used the third quarter of 2010.

Observe which sectors have performed better than the S&P 500 index (i.e., outperformed the overall market). This occurs when the S&P 500 button at the top left of the chart is selected.

For the third quarter of 2010, clearly the most cyclically sensitive sectors outperformed the market, with the exception of Financials. Overall, this is a reflection of the growth that occurred during that quarter. Had the defensive sectors (i.e., Consumer Staples, Health Care, and Utilities) outperformed, this would have signaled a potentially weakening economy.

Can this analysis be used to help predict the GDP report before it is actually released? The answer is yes. Asset markets, one of which is the stock market, are leading indicators, which means they tend to move in advance of changes in other parts of the economy. So, current changes in leading economic indicators tend to signal future changes we can expect to observe in the overall economy.

What is the stock market (and its sectors) telling us about the fourth quarter rate of economic growth? The second chart (click to enlarge) shows market performance since October 1. Other than Energy and Consumer Discretionary stocks (which themselves are cyclical), the remainder of cyclical indicators are performing less well than they did in the third quarter. The apparent message is that economic growth in the fourth quarter will be slower than it was in Q3, or spotty at best in comparison.

There are two things that should be noted. First, there is no indication that economic growth will become negative in Q4. Second, the slowing of economic growth these sectors seem to be indicting also affects the defensive sectors, so they are more negative than they were in Q3. Part of this no doubt reflects ongoing worries about the US housing market and the economic stability and solvency of several European countries as well (Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece, sometimes referred to as the PIIGS, using their first letters). Will economic weakness in Europe diminish the recent momentum the US has been experiencing? The market apparently believe that this is likely.

Let me suggest that you continue to follow the sectors as we move farther into the fourth quarter and see what the market is suggesting. We won't get the initial Q4 GDP data until late in January, so this should be informative in advance of the formal data in January (that will be stale at that point).

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