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Economy Looking Sick … Again

Weak Economyby Megan McArdle

Last month, when the Bureau of Economic Analysis announced that gross domestic product had grown at a lead-footed rate of 0.1 percent in the first quarter, economic analysts could focus on two pillars of hope. The first was that the winter weather was unusually awful, and first-quarter growth probably reflected that. And the second? This was a very preliminary number, and it seemed reasonable to think that it might be revised upward.

The operative word is “seemed.” Now the BEA has provided its first revision, and things only get more dismal: The economy actually contracted in the first quarter instead of just lying down on the sofa and feeling all mopey and sad. Key areas of decline were exports, inventories and nonresidential fixed investment. In other words, whatever happened was happening on the business side.

This doesn’t necessarily signal a slide into another recession, so don’t rush out to change your money into gold certificates and canned goods. The lousy weather could easily have depressed all three categories, after all. The markets aren’t freaking out; they were expecting this downward revision.

That said, as I wrote last month, this is a sign of an economy that is still very weak. It has been six years since the financial crisis. Federal government spending is still around 21 percent of GDP, up from 19 percent in 2007, and the Federal Reserve still has a very expansive monetary policy. Under those circumstances, a quarter of negative growth is pretty unsettling.

The most recent jobs numbers are more encouraging — but not all that stellar this far away from the crash. Six years in, employment is barely back to where it was, which means that it hasn’t even kept pace with population growth.

If the economy were healthier, jobs would be well above their previous levels — and bad weather would have taken its toll on production without pushing us into the red. We’re like a troubled company, or household: We’re operating so close to the line that any little thing can tip us over.

That’s nothing we didn’t know. But it’s still discouraging to get yet another reminder.

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Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes on economics, business and public policy.