Floyd Norris had an interesting piece noting the incongruity between the relatively strong job growth we saw in the first half of 2014 and the near zero or possibly negative GDP growth for the period. (First quarter growth was -2.9 percent, second quarter growth will be positive, but quite possibly less than 2.9 percent.) While it is easy to explain the drop in first quarter GDP as an anomaly driven by falling inventories and bad weather, it is still difficult to reconcile with a rate of job growth of 230,000 a month.
At least part of this story is likely due to quirks in the data. One prominent quirk that has been overlooked has been the pattern of health care spending. Much has been made of the fact that spending on health care services fell in the first quarter, something we have not seen since the 1960s. While this drop is striking, it is somewhat less so when we look at the fourth quarter data.
The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) reports that nominal spending on health care services rose at a 7.6 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter of 2013. This is almost twice the average pace for the prior two years. (I use nominal since I think "real" spending is of questionable meaning in health care. If we are given more of a drug that has no beneficial effect or have more unnecessary tests or procedures, real spending will increase. If better research ends this spending, it appears as a reduction in real spending even if this might be associated with better health.)
Taken on their face, the BEA numbers show a big surge in health care spending in the fourth quarter followed by an almost unprecedented reduction in spending in the first quarter. We could believe that this accurately describes what happened in the economy, or alternatively we can believe that the fourth quarter number overstated the actual increase in spending. I would lean toward the latter view. The data are never perfect and by definition, any overstatement in spending growth in one quarter leads to an understatement of growth in the next quarter.
Anyhow, that's my story on health care spending. But the GDP growth data and the jobs data are still seriously out of line.