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Beyond GDP: get ready for a new way to measure the economy

“A balanced Input-Output framework…provides a more accurate and consistent picture of the U. S. economy.”

– Survey of Current Business

Starting in spring 2014, the Bureau of Economic Analysis will release a breakthrough new economic statistic on a quarterly basis.  It’s called Gross Output, a measure of total sales volume at all stages of production. GO is almost twice the size of GDP, the standard yardstick for measuring final goods and services produced in a year.

This is the first new economic aggregate since Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was introduced over fifty years ago.

It’s about time. Starting with my work The Structure of Production in 1990 and Economics on Trial in 1991, I have made the case that we needed a new statistic beyond GDP that measures spending throughout the entire production process, not just final output.  GO is a move in that direction – a personal triumph 25 years in the making.

GO attempts to measure total sales from the production of raw materials through intermediate producers to final retail.  Based on my research, GO is a better indicator of the business cycle, and most consistent with economic growth theory.

GO is a measure of the “make” economy, while GDP represents the “use” economy.  Both are essential to understanding how the economy works.

While GDP is a good measure of national economic performance, it has a major flaw:  In limiting itself to final output, GDP largely ignores or downplays the “make” economy, that is, the supply chain and intermediate stages of production needed to produce all those finished goods and services.  This narrow focus of GDP has created much mischief in the media, government policy, and boardroom decision-making. For example, journalists are constantly overemphasizing consumer and government spending as the driving force behind the economy, rather than saving, business investment, and technological advances.  Since consumer spending represents 70% or more of GDP, followed by 20% by government, the media naively concludes that any slowdown in retail sales or government stimulus is necessarily bad for the economy.  (Private investment comes in a poor third at 13%.)

For instance, the New York Times recently reported, “Consumer spending makes up more than 70% of the economy, and it usually drives growth during economic recoveries.” (“Consumers Give Boost to Economy,” New York Times, May 1, 2010, p. B1)  Or as the Wall Street Journal stated a few years ago, “The housing bust has chilled consumer spending — the largest single driver of the U. S. economy…” (“Home Forecast Calls for Pain,” Wall Street Journal, September 21, 2011, p. A1.)

Or take this report during the economic recovery (“The Role of Government Spending,” New York Times, July 29, 2011.):

Friday’s estimates of second-quarter gross domestic product [1.3%, well below consensus forecasts] provided a sobering look at how a decline in public spending and investment can restrain growth….The astonishingly slow growth rate from April through June was due in large part to sluggish consumer spending and an increase in imports, which subtract from growth numbers. But dwindling government spending also held back growth.

In short, by focusing only on final output, GDP underestimates the money spent and economic activity generated at earlier stages in the production process. It’s as though the manufacturers and shippers and designers aren’t fully acknowledged in their contribution to overall growth or decline.

Gross Output exposes these misconceptions.  In my own research, I’ve discovered many benefits of GO statistics.  First, Gross Output provides a more accurate picture of what drives the economy.  Using GO as a more comprehensive measure of economic activity, spending by consumers turns out to represent around 40% of total yearly sales, not 70% as commonly reported. Spending by business (private investment plus intermediate inputs) is substantially bigger, representing over 50% of economic activity.  That’s more consistent with economic growth theory, which emphasizes productive saving and investment in technology on the producer side as the drivers of economic growth.  Consumer spending is largely the effect, not the cause, of prosperity.

Second, GO is significantly more sensitive to the business cycle.  During the 2008-09 Great Recession, nominal GDP fell only 2% (due largely to countercyclical increases in government), but GO collapsed by over 7%, and intermediate inputs by 10%.  Since 2009, nominal GDP has increased 3-4% a year, but GO has climbed more than 5% a year.   GO acts like the end of a waving fan.  (See chart below.)

I believe that Gross Output fills in a big piece of the macroeconomic puzzle.  It establishes the proper balance between production and consumption, between the “make” and the “use” economy, and it is more consistent with growth theory.   As Steve Landefeld, director of the BEA, and co-editors Dale Jorgenson and William Nordhaus state in their work, A New Architecture for the U. S. National Accounts (University of Chicago Press, 2006),

Gross output [GO] is the natural measure of the production sector, while net output [GDP] is appropriate as a measure of welfare.  Both are required in a complete system of accounts.

Historical Background

The history of these two economic statistics goes back to several pioneers.  Two economists in particular had much in common — they were both Russian Americans who taught at Harvard University, and both won the Nobel Prize.  Simon Kuznets did breakthrough work on GDP statistics in the 1930s.  Following the Bretton Woods Agreement in 1946, GDP became the standard measure of economic growth.  A few years later, Wassily Leontief developed the first input-output tables, which he regarded as a better measure of the whole economy.  I-O accounts require examining the “intervening steps” between inputs and outputs in the production process, “a complex series of transactions…among real people.”

I-O data created the first estimates of Gross Output.  However, GO was not emphasized as an important macroeconomic tool until my own work, The Structure of Production, was published in 1990 by New York University Press.  In chapters 6 and 9, I created a universal four stage model of the economy (see the diagram below) demonstrating the relationship between total spending in the economy and final output.

stages

 

In chapter 6, I made the point that GDP was not a complete picture of economic activity, and compared it to GO for the first time, contending that GO was more comprehensive and more accurately revealed that business investment was far bigger than consumption in the economy.

Since writing Structure, I discovered that the BEA’s Gross Output does not include all sales at the wholesale and retail level.  The BEA only includes value-added data for commodities after they become finished products.  Gross sales are ignored at the final two stages of production.  David Wasshausen, a BEA staff researcher, offers this rationale:  since “there is no further transformation of these goods…to the production process, they are excluded from wholesale/retail trade output.”

Therefore, in the 2nd edition of Structure, published in 2007, I created my own aggregate statistic, Gross Domestic Expenditures (GDE), which includes gross sales at the wholesale and retail level and is therefore significantly larger (more than double GDP).  For a comparison between GDE, GO and GDP, see my working paper.

The BEA has been compiling GO statistics from input-output data for years, but the media have largely ignored these figures because they came out only every five years (known as benchmark I-O tables).  Since the early 1990s, the BEA has been estimating industry accounts annually.  Even so, the data was never up-to-date like GDP.  (The latest input-output industry accounts are for 2011).

That has gradually changed. Under the leadership of BEA director Steve Landefeld, the BEA now has the budget to report the input-output data, including Gross Output, on a quarterly basis, and has already begun publishing quarterly data prior to 2012.  This is a major breakthrough involving the cooperation of the Bureau of the Census, Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Federal Reserve Board, and other government agencies.

Controversies Over This New Statistic

Several objections have been made over the years to the use of GO and GDE. Economists are especially fixated over the perceived problem of “double counting” with GO and GDE.  I am the first to note that GO and GDE involve double counting.  A commodity is often sold repeatedly as it goes through the resource, production, wholesale and retail stages.  Why not just measure the value added at each stage rather than double or triple count? they ask.  GDP eliminates double counting and measures only the value added at each stage.

There are several reasons why double counting should not be ignored and is actually a necessary feature to understanding the overall economy.  As accountants and financiers know, double counting is essential in business.  No company can operate or expand on the basis of value added or profits only. They must raise the capital necessary to cover the gross expenses of the company — wages and salaries, rents, interest, capital tools and equipment, supplies and goods-in-process.  GO and GDE reflect this vital business decision making at each stage of production.  Can publicly-traded firms ignore sales/revenues and only focus on earnings when they release their quarterly reports?  Wall Street would object.  Aggregate sales/revenues are important to measure on an individual firm and national basis.

In my own research, I find it interesting that GO and GDE are far more volatile than GDP during the business cycle.  As noted in the chart above, sales/revenues rise faster than GDP during an expansion, and collapse during a contraction (wholesale trade fell 20% in 2009; retail trade dropped over 7%).

Economists need to explore the meaning of this cyclical behaviour in order to make accurate forecasts and policy recommendations.  Double counting counts.

Another objection involves outsourcing and merger/acquisitions.  Companies that start outsourcing their products will cause an increase in GO or GDE, while companies that merge with another company will show a sudden decrease, even though there is essentially no change in final output (GDP).That’s a legitimate concern.  Similar problems occur with GDP.  When a homeowner marries the maid, the maid may no longer be paid and therefore her services may no longer be included in GDP.  Black market activities often fail to show up in GDP data as well.  Certainly if a significant trend develops in outsourcing or merger & acquisition activity, it will be reflected in GO or GDE statistics, but not necessarily in GDP.  It bears further investigation to see how serious this issue is.  No aggregate statistic is perfect, but GO and GDE offer forecasters an improved macro picture of the economy.

In conclusion, GO or GDE should be the starting point for measuring aggregate spending in the economy, as it measures both the “make” economy (intermediate production), and the “use” economy (final output).  It complements GDP and can easily be incorporated in standard national income accounting and macroeconomic analysis.  To see how, take a look at the 4th edition of my textbook, Economic Logic (Capital Press, 2014), available in paperback and Kindle.

A version of this article was previously published at Forbes.com.

8 comments to Beyond GDP: get ready for a new way to measure the economy

  • Paul Marks

    I tend to look mainly at industrial, mining and farm production figures – terribly imperfect though they are.

    GDP tends to be dominated by consumer (and financial services) credit bubbles and government spending.

    When people say “the vast majority of our economy is consumer spending” what they are really saying (although the do not know it) is “the vast majority of our economy is an unsustainable bubble”.

  • chuck martel

    The template into which the numbers are placed can’t mean anymore than the validity of the numbers themselves. The source and accuracy of the numbers will be a concern no matter how they’re interpreted. If the statistics used in macroeconomic policy could be trusted central planning wouldn’t be such an impossible task. Aside from that, even if the numbers could somehow be trusted, how would they and the interpretations that follow them apply to any real world circumstance? Of course, the numbers are also in a constant state of flux and any interpretation is out of date as soon as it’s made. If it were possible to measure the number of photons received by the earth from the sun on January 1st, would we be able to predict how many tomatoes could be harvested from my aunt Zelda’s garden in late June? Macroeconomics is a pastime, not a field of study.

  • Craig Howard

    This is a big step forward. I don’t know how widely-reported the new figure will be, but anything that starts to get us past the consumer-spending-is=70%-of-the-economy nonsense is good.

  • MrVeryAngry

    Whatever. I know that’s churlish, but really, if you give gummint any statistic it starts ‘planning’ to ‘maximise’ it, which is fatal. Overall, best not to do this at all, as it will encourage even more failed central planning.
    (Mind you GDP is crap, so at least this is less crap).

  • corrigan

    Note, however, that GO is not perfect. For starters it still nets out wholesale and retail. It still counts government as a plus. It still includes any number of non-cash ‘imputations’, etc, etc. … and, for all that I too welcome this, ultimately what this boils down (mostly) to is business revenues. data for those are freely available on a monthly basis.

    • The data has been around for years, what’s new is that Gross Output (GO) is going to be published up-to-date with GDP statistics every quarter. Nobody paid attention to GO because the data was always late. I was just told by the BEA that the quarterly GO statistics will first come out on Friday, April 24, 2014. I’m planning to have a major press conference on this and why it’s important. Hopefully it will be the last time we hear the media spouting, “Consumer spending, which represents 70% of economic activity, drives the economy.”

  • Paul Marks

    Dr Skousen you are being much too optimistic. This generation of journalists (including News International people at Fox and Wall Street Journal) have been educated in certain doctrines – they are anti Say’s Law (when they have even heard of it) and pro consumption and spending.

    And they sneer at (and try to undermine) anyone who is not – see how the Wall Street Journal treats Senator Rand Paul.

    It will take economic breakdown to change all this.

  • Robert Halstead

    Aggregate measures have become the objective of policy, rather than just statistical information. It is important to strive for the best information, even if government will try to warp it. If an alternative measure can moderate the GDP=whole economy attitude and give a clearer picture then it must be useful. Policy debate could then revolve around the actual economy, rather than just GDP.

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