Don’t Fall for the Q3 Head-Fake

We have plenty of data reports to go, but, so far, the third quarter is shaping up to be a strong one for the US economy. The Atlanta Fed’s GDP Now model is tracking a Real GDP growth rate of 4.9% for Q3, which would be the fastest quarterly growth rate since the earlier part of the COVID recovery.

Our models aren’t tracking quite so high but are projecting growth at about a 4.0% rate, still strong by the standards of the past couple of decades.

However, we would not get too excited about what’s happening in the third quarter and don’t think one quarter of strong economic growth means a recession is off the table.

With all the oddities of the COVID era – first overly strict lockdowns and then overly gradual re-openings – it’s entirely possible the GDP reports are exhibiting some “seasonality,” where certain quarters look better than the underlying economy really is. The third quarter is when children typically go back to school, for example, but, unfortunately, they did that less so during COVID. As a result, normal back-to-school behaviors might make the economy look extra strong for now.

To put some numbers on this, statistical adjustments to retail sales (called seasonal adjustments) subtracted 1.8% from reported sales in July 2019, prior to pandemic shutdowns. Back to school spending in July (much like Christmas) makes for some big spending months, and the statisticians adjust the numbers down. But in 2020, 2021 and 2022 July sales fell because so many schools were closed. This reversed the seasonals and this July (2023) seasonal adjustments added 1.4% to reported sales. We think this is distorting our view of the economy.

Meanwhile, the economy is likely feeling the last positive remnants of the surge in the money supply in 2020-21. The lags between monetary policy and the economy have always been long and variable, as Milton Friedman taught us. Beyond the third quarter, the economy is likely to show more of the effects of the drop in the M2 measure of the money supply from mid-2022 through early 2023.