What to do when we do not know GDP,Inflation or even Unemployment levels?

by Charles Hugh-Smith

Today has brought a whole raft of data for our attention and much of it is eye-catching. So let is begin with La Belle France a subject on my mind after watching the film Waterloo last night.

In Q1 2020, GDP in volume terms fell sharply: –5.8%, the biggest drop in the series’ record, since 1949. In particular, it is bigger than the ones recorded in Q1 2009 (–1.6%) or in Q2 1968 (–5.3%). ( Insee )

I have to confess I am a little in the dark as to 1968 and can only think it may have been related to the student riots of the era. The Covid-19 vibe is established by the way that domestic demand plunged.

Household consumption expenditures dropped (–6.1%), as did total gross fixed capital formation in a more pronounced manner (GFCF: –11.8%). Overall, final domestic demand excluding inventory changes fell sharply: it contributed to –6.6 points to GDP growth.

I guess no-one is going to be surprised by this either.

Overall production of goods and services declined sharply (–5.5%). It fell the hardest in construction (–12,6%), while output in goods declined –4.8% and output in manufactured goods dropped –5.6%. Output in market services declined by –5.7% overall.

Such production as there was seems to have piled up.

Conversely, changes in inventories contributed positively to GDP growth (+0.9 points).

At a time like this GDP really struggles to deal with trade so let me use France as an example on the way to explaining the issue.

Exports also fell this quarter (–6.5%) along with imports (–5.9%), in a less pronounced manner. All in all, the foreign trade balance contributed negatively to GDP growth: –0.2 points, after –0.1 points the previous quarter.

As you can see the net effect here is rather small especially in these circumstances. But there is a lot going on as we see large moves in both exports and imports. Another way of looking at this is provided by the Bureau of Economic Analysis in the US.

Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, decreased

A lot less detail for a start. Let me help out as imports in the US fell heavily by US $140.1 billion in fact and exports only fell by US $56.9 billion. So net exports rose by US $83.3 billion and boosted the numbers. This is really awkward when a signal that the US is doing badly raises GDP by 2.32% on its own and in net terms by 1.3% ( care is needed with US numbers because they are annualised).

So here is a major caveat that the US may appear to be doing better but the trade breakdown hints strongly things are much worse than that.

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Spain had been having a good run but sadly that is now over.

Spanish GDP registers a -5.2% variation in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the previous quarter in terms of volume. This rate is 5.6 points less than the Registered in the fourth quarter. ( INE)

The chart is quite extraordinary as the good run since around 2014 is replaced by quite a plummet. We see that it is essentially a domestic game as like France the international factor small.

For its part, external demand presents a contribution of 0.2 points, three tenths lower than that of the previous quarter.

We do get a hint of what is about to hit the labour market and indeed unemployment which had remained high in Spain.

The employment of the economy, in terms of hours worked, registers a variation of ,5.0% compared to the previous quarter.


Let me return to France to illustrate the issues here.

Over a year, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) should rise by 0.4% in April 2020, after +0.7% in the previous month, according to the provisional estimate made at the end of the month. This drop in inflation should result from an accentuated fall in energy prices and a sharp slowdown in service prices.

A problem leaps off the page and ironically they have unintentionally described it

an accentuated fall in energy prices

That is because the weight for energy is too high as for example factories stopped work and there was much less commuting. Then there is this.

Food prices should rebound sharply, due to a strong rise in fresh food product prices.

Fresh food prices rose by 18.1% in March but are weighted at a mere 2.3% as opposed to the 8.1% of energy, when we know that there was heavy demand to stock up. I do not wish to demean their efforts but the claim that other food prices rose by 1.4% compared to 2.3% this time last year looks dodgy and may well be suffering from this

The price collection carried out by collectors on the field (about 40% in the CPI) has been suspended since 16 March:

Also it was a rough month for smokers as tobacco rose by 13.7%.

If we look at Spain we see the energy/fuel problem emerge again.

The preliminary data that is presented today through the leading indicator of the CPI, places its annual variation at –0.7% in April, seven tenths below that registered in March, influenced for the most part by the drop in fuel prices and fuels, compared to the increase registered in 2019.

Also with food prices albeit it on a lower scale.

It is remarkable the behavior of food prices, whose annual rate passes from 2.5% in March to 4.0% in April. Of these, fresh food reaches a rate of 6.9%, three points above that of the previous month, and packaged foods, place their annual rate at 2.2%, six tenths above that of March.

Although to be fair to INE in Spain they are trying to adapt to the new reality.

the prices of the products included in the goods special group COVID-19 increased 1.2% in April, compared to the previous month. While the services COVID-19 decreased 1.4% in April compared to March.


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This may well be the biggest statistical fail I have seen in the world of economics.

In March 2020, in comparison with the previous month, employment slightly decreased and unemployment sharply fell together with a relevant increase of inactivity.

Yes you did read the latter part correctly.

In the last month, also the remarkable fall of the unemployed people (-11.1%, -267 thousand) was
recorded for both men (-13.4%, -169 thousand) and women (-8.6%, -98 thousand). The unemployment
rate dropped to 8.4% (-0.9 percentage points) and the youth rate fell to 28.0% (-1.2 p.p.).

They had two issues to contend with but tripped over a theoretical flaw. The issues were having to do the survey by telephone and a sample size some 20% lower. The flaw is that to be unemployed you have to be available for work and in this situation I am sure many reported that they were not. Indeed you can see this below.

In the last three months, also the number of unemployed persons decreased (-5.4%, -133 thousand), while
a growth among inactive people aged 15-64 years was registered (+1.5%, +192 thousand)……..On a yearly basis, the decrease of employed people was accompanied by a fall of unemployed persons
(-21.1%, -571 thousand) and a growth of inactive people aged 15-64 (+4.4%, +581 thousand).


I summarised the situation on social media yesterday.

Reasons not to trust the US GDP print

1. Advance estimates only have ~50% of the full data

2. Inflation estimates will be nearly hopeless at a time like this.

3. Output of say planes for no one to fly in them has obvious issues….

Let me add a fourth which is the impact of imports that I have described above.

Switching to the unemployment numbers from Italy I do not blame those compiling the numbers and find them helpful when I have an enquiry. But someone higher up the chain should at least have put a large warning on these numbers and maybe even stopped their publication as statistics are supposed to inform not mislead. They seem to have taken Talking Heads a little too literally.

Stop making sense
Quit talking
Stop making sense
Start falling
Stop making sense
Hold onto me
You’re always at your best
When you’re not making sense

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