Winter Caused the Slowdown? That's a Snow Job
Economists, investment analysts, and politicians have spent much of 2014 bemoaning the terrible economic effects of the winter of 2014. The cold and snow have been continuously blamed for the lackluster job market, disappointing retail sales, tepid business investment and, most notably, much slower than expected GDP growth. Given how optimistic many of these forecasters had been in the waning months of 2013, when the stock market was surging into record territory and the Fed had finally declared that the economy had outgrown the need for continued Quantitative Easing, the weather was an absolutely vital alibi. If not for the excuse of the bad weather, the entire narrative of a sustainable recovery would have been proven false.
Remarkably, this optimism was largely undiminished when the preliminary estimate for first quarter GDP came in at a shocking minus one percent annualized. This number, almost four percentage points lower than the forecasts from the end of 2013, hinted at an economy on a path toward recession. Still, the experts brushed off the report as a weather-related anomaly.
In contrast, I spent the better part of the last five months arguing that the weather was a straw man. I saw a fundamentally weak and contracting economy being artificially propped up by Fed stimulus, illusory accounting, and massive federal deficit spending. However, while it is difficult to precisely measure the effects of bad weather on the economy, a fresh look at the historical data does tell me that a bad winter usually has an economic effect, but not nearly enough to support the oversize excuses being made by our leading pundits.
According to Rutgers University's Global Snow Lab, the winter of 2014 was one of 18 winters in which North America experienced demonstrably "above the trend line" snow accumulation since 1967 (this is as far back as Rutgers data goes). But there were at least eight winters in that time period that had more snow than in 2014. So it would be a stretch to say that this past winter made a greater impact than the average of the 10 snowiest winters since 1967. Cross-checking those winters with corresponding GDP figures from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) reveals some very interesting conclusions.
In general, first quarter (which corresponds to the winter months of January, February, and March) shows annualized GDP growth that is in line with other quarters. For instance, since 1967 average annualized 1st quarter growth came in at 2.7%, slightly above the 2.55% for the average 4th quarter, and below the 2.8% in 3rd quarter and 3.4% in 2nd. But when winter gets nasty, the economy does slow noticeably in the first quarter. So, to that extent my initial analysis likely underestimated its impact. The bad news for the apologists is that the drag is not nearly enough to explain away the current lethargy.
The average annualized GDP growth for the 10 snowiest winters (not counting 2014) was just .5%. This is more than two percentage points below the typical first quarter. It's also more than two percentage points below the average annualized growth for the 4th quarters that preceded those 10 snowiest winters. This is important, because the economy tends to develop in waves that occur outside of the weather cycle. So based on this, we can conclude that the snow of this year likely shaved two percentage points from 1st quarter GDP growth.
But the negative one percent growth is almost four points off the initial forecasts. So, at best, the winter accounted for half the disappointment. Imagine if we had a mild winter, and 1st quarter GDP came in at a measly 1%. Without a convenient excuse to blame it on, how optimistic would Wall Street be now? Would the Fed really be continuing to taper in the face of such anemic growth? I doubt it.
The apologists also ignore the increased ability of current consumers to shop on the Internet at home even when the snow keeps them from the malls. This is an ability that simply did not exist more than 10 years ago...and should help to minimize the winter slowdowns.
An analysis of the bad winters also reveals a clear tendency for the economy to bounce back strongly in the following quarter. This confirms the theory that pent up demand gets released in the spring. In the ten 2nd quarters that followed the ten snowiest winters, annualized GDP averaged a strong 4.4%, or almost four percent higher than the prior quarter. (The snap back was even more dramatic in the five snowiest winters, when the differential was more than five percent.) Based on this, we should see annualized 2nd quarter growth this year of at least three or four percent.
However, the raft of statistics that have come in over the past few weeks does not show that this is happening. A horrific trade deficit report came in this week widening to $47 Billion, the highest since July 2012. The data out this week also showed that consumer spending fell .1% in April (for the first time in a year), and that productivity falling in the 1st Quarter by 3.2% in the face of higher labor costs, which grew at 5.7% annualized. And although May's 217,000 increase in non-farm payrolls was in-line with expectation (following the big miss in ADP data earlier in the weak) it nonetheless represents a significant slowdown from April's 288,000 pace. The level of hiring did nothing to push up the labor force participation rate, which remained stuck at a 35 year low of 62.8%. Predictably, almost all of the jobs added were in low paying sectors that will not contribute much to overall purchasing power, like hospitality (mostly bars and restaurants), healthcare, and education. The report included a big drop in the number of construction workers added, which is the latest sign that the real estate sector is decelerating.
But even if growth picks up in the 2nd quarter to 4%, my guess is that most analysts will herald the news as confirmation that the economy is back on track, and discussion of the weather will disappear. However, since half of that four percent will have been borrowed from Q1, Q2's higher growth rate will also be weather-related. But while everyone blamed first quarter weakness on the weather, very few will likely cite it as a cause for any potential second quarter strength. But if you add the minus one percent from Q1 to a potential plus four percent from Q2, the average would still only be just 1.5% growth for the first half of 2014. Despite this, the Fed has yet to revise down its full year 2014 growth estimates of 2.8% to 3.2% that it made at the end of last year. To grow at 3% for the year, even with 4% growth in Q2 (which is above the current consensus estimate), the economy would have to grow at 4.5 percent for the entire second half. Good luck with that.
So yes, the winter was bad, and yes it had an effect. But it was not likely the driving force of the first quarter slow-down and its effects should be very confined. But that won't stop the pundits from gnawing on that particular bone as long as they can get away with it. Unfortunately, they can get away with it for a long time.