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GDP Growth in 2011 Q1 Scaled Back by Forecasters

After the tax cut deal, most economic analysts raised their forecasts for GDP and job growth in 2011. They didn’t take the second half of the deal into account; budget cuts and a probable government shutdown that will eat into both areas. In addition, mass unrest in the Middle East, rising commodity prices, no sign of an end to the foreclosure mess and the continuing debt crisis have put a strain on recovery efforts. There’s also the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and what that has done to supply lines and exports.

So the GDP release for the first quarter of the year, which ends on Thursday, will come out in a matter of weeks. And the same analysts who upgraded on the tax cut deal are now downgrading on this news. And that’s before the likely government shutdown on April 8, which will affect the second quarter.

Bill McBride explains this all at his site, using available data, particularly Personal Consumption Expenditure growth, to project GDP. It’s coming in lower. McBride darkly closes with, “I still expect stronger GDP growth in 2011 than in 2010, but it appears 2011 is off to a sluggish start – and I’m concerned about world events and high oil prices.”

Indeed, oil prices are accounting for much of the gains in consumer spending. While that key metric has increased for the last 8 months, last month’s increase of 0.7% drops to 0.3% when adjusted for inflation. The stimulus of the tax cut deal is going into paying energy bills. And the overall increases in consumer spending are lower than the increases in the fourth quarter of last year.

Despite all this, the job picture is marginally better, but the March jobs report, due Friday, will be a big benchmark. Analysts predict another gain of 200,000 or so jobs. With jobs being a lagging indicator, this seems to be a reaction to a good fourth quarter of 2010. But all the aforementioned challenges for the economy could have a near-term impact. If the jobs number comes in low, the reasons are pretty clear. And the last thing this economy needs with at least 14 million out of work is another soft patch.

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David Dayen

David Dayen