Counterparties: The non-industrious military complex

By Ben Walsh
January 30, 2013

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America’s economy defied expectations and shrank 0.1% in the fourth quarter — analysts expected 1.1% growth. And it’s all the military’s fault. Or at least, the fault of declining defense spending.

Brad Plumer runs through just how significant the fall off was:

Government defense expenditures plunged by a staggering 22.2% between October and December… The Pentagon spent significantly less on just about everything except military pay. Had the Pentagon not cut back on spending, the economy would have grown at a weak but positive 1.27% pace.

While Plumer notes that military spending often falls from the third quarter to the fourth, T Rowe Price’s chief economist Alan Levenson pointed out in a note to clients that the decline was the single largest decrease on record. Dylan Matthews has a great chart showing just how out of synch defense spending (and inventories) were from the rest of the economy. On a more granular level, this graph from Reuters shows capital expenditures at Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman, everyone’s favorite cluster bomb assemblers and  drone manufacturers, falling off a cliff.

The stimulative effects of defense spending are nothing new. Just think WWII or, more recently, the Washington, DC area, where the economy has grown about three times faster than the rest of the country since the financial crisis. Last fall more than a few economists cut their fourth quarter forecasts despite upward government revisions to third quarter growth. Back then, the surge in third quarter defense spending didn’t look sustainable.

Even more cuts could be on the way: the automatic budget cuts — i.e. “the sequester” — that Republicans look increasingly willing to let go into effect on March 1 are heavily weighted towards the military and are projected to shave 0.7% off this year’s GDP.

All of this is part of the long process of getting military spending down to pre-9/11 levels: the US accounts for 40% of total defense spending globally. As that happens, America won’t be able to rely on the military industrial complex to prop up growth. — Ben Walsh

On to today’s links:

Oxpeckers
Advice for the new owner of The New Republic: Don’t pretend to be a journalist – Jack Shafer
Statistics abuse, Ross Douthat edition – Choire Sicha

New Normal
The story of the post-crisis recovery: borrowing for college instead of borrowing to buy a home – Matt O’Brien

Defenestrations
Chesapeake’s CEO is out after “philosophical differences” with the board (and a year of scandal) – Reuters

The Fed
The Fed warns itself that it could lose money on its massive bond portfolio – WSJ
Everyone at Davos was worrying about the Fed causing a “1994 moment” – Business Insider
January’s FOMC statement – Federal Reserve

Modest Proposals
Smart people confused / not confused by satire, Henry Blodget edition – The Awl

Remuneration
Meet the best-paid Wall Street CEO, whose comp is equal to nearly 14% of his company’s profits - WSJ

Alpha
Bond investors (Goldman, Oppenheimer) have made a killing off Chavez’s disastrous regime – Bloomberg

MF Doom
MF Global’s European bond trades weren’t to blame! (Given unlimited time and money) – Dealbook

Yikes
Zimbabwe only has $217 left in the bank – Quartz

Ouch
Elon Musk calls the Boeing 787 batteries “fundamentally unsafe” – Flight Global

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