What America’s shocking growth figures really mean for your money

The latest figures show that America’s economic growth collapsed in the first quarter of this year. But it's not something to get too worked up about, says John Stepek.


The US market: where it leads, others follow

America's growth collapsed in the first quarter of this year, it seems.

The latest revision to GDP showed that the US economy shrunk at an annual rate of 2.9% during the first three months of 2014.

That's staggering. To give you some perspective, that drop alone is bigger than the entire recession of 2001, as James Mckintosh notes in the FT. It really is a dreadful figure.

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What does it mean for us as investors?

Honestly? I couldn't care less. And nor should you

Why America's woeful GDP data can be ignored

Depending on the political bias of the pundit in question, they'll either be trying to talk the bad news down, or hype it up.

But the slump largely boils down to the fact that the US had a terrible winter remember all those pictures of the sea being frozen over? That Arctic vortex' put a stop to lots of activity, from consumption, to exporting, to construction. Hence the drop in GDP.

Will activity rebound in the second quarter? It certainly looks like it. The US might not be enjoying the most vigorous economic recovery ever, but it hasn't tumbled back into a hole either, as that GDP data might suggest.

As Mckintosh notes, US corporate earnings for the first quarter were largely fine no sign of a catastrophic collapse in activity there. And "unlike national statisticians, finance directors rarely restate profits".

So this doesn't look like something to get worked up about.

The Fed has more ammunition to keep rates lower for longer

Central bankers in the US and the UK are at a very tricky stage in the cycle. In Europe, the bias is still towards loosening monetary policy, by perhaps printing money. And in Japan, the central bank is also still pumping the economy full of printed money.

But in the US, they're tapering' offthe amount of money they print. And in the UK, all the talk is of when rates will rise. This is the hard bit for central banks.

You see, printing money is rather fun. Everyone likes you. Stocks go up, property prices go up, politicians are happy, and anyone who owns any sort of asset thinks that you're on their side.

If you start raising rates, and put an end to rising prices, you'll be accused of being a party pooper. But if you let things get too exuberant, you run the risk of encouraging people to take on too much risk, making the financial system vulnerable to small shocks. You also run the risk of allowing inflation (remember that?) to get a hold on the economy.

And if you wait until inflation is showing signs of rising strongly before you tighten, it's too late. You'll need to tighten much faster than perhaps the economy can stand if you want to crush inflation from the system.

Trouble is, it's clear that neither Janet Yellen in the US, nor Mark Carney over here in the UK, feel too confident about raising rates.

Yellen dismissed a recent, relatively high reading for US inflation, as "noise". But as analysts at Capital Economics noted, price rises were spread across plenty of sectors there's no reason to think of this as a one-off spike.

However, what this grim GDP figure does is give the Fed that bit more ammunition if it needed it to keep interest rates lower for longer.

The next big crisis will be about inflation, not deflation

What does that mean for your wealth? Any prospect of inflation makes bonds unattractive. If you do want to hold bonds in your portfolio (and there's an argument to have them there for diversification), the most sensible way to do it is through a bond laddering' strategy.

I'm not keen on US stocks at the moment as a market, the US is just too expensive. Of course there are individual opportunities my colleague Matthew Partridge looks at one very promising sector in the latest issue of MoneyWeek magazine, out tomorrow. (If you're not already a subscriber, get your first four copies free here.)

But overall, I wouldn't be keen to invest in an S&P 500 tracker for example.

The irritating thing about the US market is that where it leads, others tend to follow. So even markets that we like and view as relatively cheap like Europe and Japan would take a hit if the US corrects. However, timing any correction is almost impossible, so I'd just keep drip-feeding money into your favourite markets. That means if prices fall, it just means you get to pick up more stocks.

And keep hold of gold as your portfolio insurance. As it becomes clear that central bankers are falling behind the curve, demand for gold will pick up again.

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John Stepek

John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.