Third Quarter Real GDP Revisions: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back


The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) released its “third” estimate for real GDP growth in the third quarter today. The revisions are based on more complete data than was available for earlier estimates. Real GDP growth was revised upward to 2.6 percent from the “second” estimate of 2.5 percent. Overall growth was stronger but the composition was weaker than in the prior release. Personal consumption expenditures contributed 1.7 percentage points to GDP growth instead of the earlier estimate of 2.0, and inventory investment contributed 1.6 percentage points instead of 1.3. For the recovery to truly gain momentum personal consumption will have to replace rebuilding inventories as the source of strength, so the revisions are one step back. But today’s numbers definitely represent two steps forward as the final third quarter 2.6 percent real GDP growth represents solid improvement over 1.7 percent in the second quarter.

Going forward, conditions look good for both of these components. Personal consumption has improved steadily since mid-2009 following the end of the recession, increasing at an annual rate of 2.4 percent in the third quarter, and the recent $858 billion compromise tax deal on Capitol Hill will provide additional stimulus.

And the inventory cycle will weaken, but is not completely out of the picture yet. Increases in private inventories have gained strength over the year, but have kept pace with sales, keeping the inventory/sales ratio in balance and well below the level that precipitated the sharp reduction beginning in mid-2008. This signals that the current increases are intentional inventory investment and this contribution to growth isn’t quite over.

Overall, today’s numbers paint a picture of an improving economy with real promise for the fourth quarter and as we move into 2011. This will be a critical prerequisite for improvement in the labor market, stimulating job growth and lowering the unemployment rate. And a more robust recovery and declining unemployment rate will provide the boost to confidence that should re-energize and support a more robust recovery in housing.

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