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Why Jamie Dimon is wrong about the US economy

As CEO of the biggest bank in the U.S., a vibrant economy is in Jamie Dimon's best interests. His expectations, though, look a little misplaced.

In a wide-ranging interview Monday with CNBC, the JPMorgan Chase chief contended that growth is faster than the data indicate, based on his observation of conditions. He said America's future is bright, and he estimated that with the proper measures, gross domestic product could expand by 4 percent under the next president.

"What we see is a strong consumer," Dimon said. "Asset prices are up, 13 million more people are working, wages are going up, household spending is up." It all means, he said, that things are improving after years of lackluster growth.

Cold numbers, though, indicate there's a lot of work to be done first.

Economists got a jolt Friday when they found out that their sanguine expectations for second-quarter growth were off — by a lot. GDP rose just 1.2 percent in the quarter, compared with Wall Street estimates of 2.6 percent, while growth for the previous three months got knocked down to 0.8 percent.

Sound bad?

Well, one economist who had broken ranks with his brethren on the Street and actually expected the poor second-quarter numbers said they were actually worse than they looked. In fact, Joseph LaVorgna, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank, said one measure shows the economy teetering on recession.

Jamie Dimon
Ken Preston | CNBC
Jamie Dimon

LaVorgna, who had been expecting a 1 percent gain for the second quarter, said the GDP report showed that the modicum of growth actually was driven in whole by consumer spending, which normally makes up around 70 percent of the economy but has taken on an even bigger role lately.

Stripping out the personal consumption expenditures gains over the past four quarters, that leaves growth at -0.2 percent.

"If consumers were to wobble in the near-term, it would have profound negative implications for the overall economic outlook," LaVorgna said in a note to clients. "This is why we see an elevated risk of recession, which we estimate to be roughly one in three. There is simply not much else to cushion GDP growth should consumer spending falter possibly due to an exogenous shock."

To be sure, that's a pretty substantial caveat, considering that consumer activity has been pretty strong lately. Consumer spending showed a strong 4.2 percent gain in the first quarter, while disposable income increased 3.1 percent.

But business investment is falling and inflation is running well below trend, a reflection of the continuing lack of pricing power companies are experiencing despite some other positive signs.

"I wouldn't overreact to short-term data," Dimon said. "I'm not convinced that GDP data is actually that accurate anymore. What I see is more household formation, more people buying homes."

Later in the interview, though, he tempered his remarks, conceding that slow growth was holding back the Federal Reserve from raising interest rates. The Fed hiked its overnight rate target by a quarter point in December, the first increase in more than nine years, but hasn't moved since.

"If we have proper growth in the United States, we'll start to normalize interest rates," Dimon said.

He was optimistic about the road ahead, saying that the next president could see GDP growth well above trend. President Barack Obama is nearly certain to be the first Oval Office holder never to see more than 3 percent annualized growth during his term.

"If the next president focuses on the right things, I think we're going to 4 percent," Dimon said. "Those right things are proper immigration reform, proper infrastructure spending. The Democrats say spend a lot of money. I kind of agree with that. The Republicans say it shouldn't be bridges to nowhere, big pork barrel [projects]. I agree with that."

However, the prospects are not good based on where the respective candidates stand. Multiple analyses of proposals from Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton show growth remaining below trend for the years ahead.

Most recently, Moody's Analytics broke down the two plans. The firm found growth peaking out at 4 percent under Clinton in 2018 then falling back substantially in the ensuing years. Growth under Trump would peak at 3.7 percent in 2017, followed by a "lengthy recession" afterward, according to Moody's.