U.S. GDP Hides Weakness Behind Massive Debt

U.S. GDP Hides Weakness Behind Massive Debt

U.S. GDP Hides Weakness Behind Massive Debt

The United States is borrowing its way to disguise recession.

The headline economic figures for the United States look robust. However, details show concerning weaknesses.

Real GDP growth surged to 4.9% in the third quarter, above the consensus estimate of 4.5%. However, some analysts, including Bloomberg, expected up to 5% growth based on the nowcast estimates.

United States unemployment is also low, at 3.8%, but real wage growth remains negative, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Between September 2022 and the same month of 2023, the decrease in real average weekly earnings was 0.1%. This means that a tight labor market is not improving the real disposable income of workers. Additionally, the labor participation rate and employment-to-population ratio remain below pre-pandemic levels. Add rising taxes to inflation, eating away at wage growth, and you can see why things are more complicated than what headlines suggest.

The cracks in the bullish story will appear soon. Consumer spending grew at a strong 4.0% annualized rate in the third quarter, which surprised most analysts after a weak 0.8% in the previous reading. The worrying fact is that this rise in consumption comes mostly from higher debt, as United States consumers are borrowing heavily to spend on entertainment. The rise in services was 3.6%, while real disposable income is negative (-0.1%) and household credit card debt reaches a new record. Unsurprisingly, credit card debt rose to a new high of more than $1 trillion, with the average consumer running a $5,900 debt on their card, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Last year, credit card interest rose to $105 billion, and this year will be much higher.

Americans are living on borrowed time as real salaries remain in negative territory in the past five years and inflation eats savings away. This may last, but not much.


More concerning figures in GDP: A strong economy does not show a decline in investment of this magnitude. Nonresidential business investment fell 0.1%, including a 3.8% slump in equipment investment. According to Morgan Stanley, capital expenditure plans have fallen to May 2020 levels.

The mirage of construction is also gone, as it fell to just 1.6% after a one-off double-digit increase in the past quarter. Furthermore, a large part of the growth in GDP came from bloated government spending financed with more debt and inventory revaluation, adding 0.8 and 1.4 percentage points to GDP growth. Many of these temporary effects will revert in the fourth quarter.

The level of public debt is exceedingly concerning. The increase in gross domestic product between the third quarter of 2022 and the same period of 2023 was a mere $414.3 billion, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, while the increase in public debt was $1.3 trillion ($32.3 to $33.6 trillion, according to the Treasury).

The United States is now in the worst year of growth, excluding public debt accumulation since the thirties.

Consumption financed by soaring credit card debt and economic growth disguised by enormous government spending and record public debt are not indicators of a strong economy but proof of a very worrying trend that may last another two quarters but will likely result in a much weaker economy in the next three years.

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Daniel Lacalle

Global Economy Expert

Daniel Lacalle is one the most influential economists in the world. He is Chief Economist at Tressis SV, Fund Manager at Adriza International Opportunities, Member of the advisory board of the Rafael del Pino foundation, Commissioner of the Community of Madrid in London, President of Instituto Mises Hispano and Professor at IE Business School, London School of Economics, IEB and UNED. Mr. Lacalle has presented and given keynote speeches at the most prestigious forums globally including the Federal Reserve in Houston, the Heritage Foundation in Washington, London School of EconomicsFunds Society Forum in Miami, World Economic ForumForecast Summit in Peru, Mining Show in Dubai, Our Crowd in Jerusalem, Nordea Investor Summit in Oslo, and many others. Mr Lacalle has more than 24 years of experience in the energy and finance sectors, including experience in North Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. He is currently a fund manager overseeing equities, bonds and commodities. He was voted Top 3 Generalist and Number 1 Pan-European Buyside Individual in Oil & Gas in Thomson Reuters’ Extel Survey in 2011, the leading survey among companies and financial institutions. He is also author of the best-selling books: “Life In The Financial Markets” (Wiley, 2014), translated to Portuguese and Spanish ; The Energy World Is Flat” (Wiley, 2014, with Diego Parrilla), translated to Portuguese and Chinese ; “Escape from the Central Bank Trap” (2017, BEP), translated to Spanish. Mr Lacalle also contributes at CNBCWorld Economic ForumEpoch TimesMises InstituteHedgeyeZero HedgeFocus Economics, Seeking Alpha, El EspañolThe Commentator, and The Wall Street Journal. He holds a PhD in Economics, CIIA financial analyst title, with a post graduate degree in IESE and a master’s degree in economic investigation (UCV).

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