Fourth quarter Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was reported higher, but the growth rate fell short of economists' views. Stocks started lower on the news Friday and kept that way as a closer look at the data shows it has gaping holes in it. Thus, American economic activity may not be as supportive of stocks as valuations had accounted for up to today. Our analysis of the GDP report and our global economic outlook certainly advise for investor restraint.
The government reported Friday that fourth quarter GDP grew 2.8%, which was well above the third quarter growth rate of 1.8%. Yet, stocks fell at the start of trading, leaving casual observers wondering what gives. Just ahead of closing, the SPDR Dow Jones Industrial Average (NYSEARCA:DIA)was still roughly 0.6% lower, while the SPDR S&P 500 Index (NYSEARCA:SPY) was off by 0.2%. That can be partially explained by the shortfall of Q4 growth to economists' expectations, which were set at a +3.1% consensus based on Bloomberg's survey. Still, you would think the much better growth would outweigh a few tenths of a point here or there. Well, that would be a correct assessment, so the reaction of stocks must be defined by a more complex set of factors, and those can be found in the details of the data.
The two most significant issues detracting from the best quarterly GDP growth since Q2 2010 both tie into consumer spending. First, and most importantly, GDP was lifted 1.94 percentage points by a build in inventories. Some are saying that this is okay, since third quarter growth was penalized by 1.35 percentage points due to an inventory draw down, however, I see no relevance. Despite the promotional environment of the fourth quarter, the aggregate performance of retailers was poor. This was also apparent by the December Retail Sales data. In other words, discounters like Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) and Costco (NASDAQ:COST) may have continued to steal market share alongside bargain online salesmen like Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) and eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY), while general operators like J.C. Penney (NYSE:JCP) and poor performers like Sears (NASDAQ:SHLD) now employ reinvention strategies to save themselves. In electronics, the success of Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Amazon seems to come at the cost of Research in Motion (RIMM) and Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ). Thus, on the whole, a soft economy leaves a competitive environment that can no longer support all players.
The other point that I see as significant came from the growth of the services sector in Q4, which only managed 0.2%, according to the government. Our services dominant economy cannot sustain significant economic growth without robust activity in services. Also, as I've pointed out in the past, the sales galore and holiday imploring environment of Q4 is likely to cost consumption in Q1, if not further. Without demand for services, what then will drive our economy?
Regarding the sustainability of economic growth, we also find issue with another factor that helped to drive spending in Q4. Americans dipped into their savings in order to fund consumption. The government noted that the personal savings rate, which measures savings as a percentage of personal income, fell to 3.7% in Q4, from 3.9% in Q3. Clearly, there's only so far Americans can dip into savings, and considering the private debt problem that our nation still faces, there's only so far this factor can drive our economy.
Therefore, and in conclusion, the market is just in its determination to penalize stock valuations now. Also, given the pitfalls that litter our path forward, including European economic recession (20% of American exports sold there) and geopolitical deterioration (Iran et al), investors are correct to proceed with caution.