The Meaning and Misuses of GDP

The Meaning and Misuses of GDP

April 25, 2013

America’s Gross Domestic Product — GDP — is a very powerful statistic. Markets and politicians zealously track the quarterly numbers looking for a bottom line on how investors and the rest of us feel about our conditions and prospects. Compiled by some 2,000 economists and statisticians at the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), GDP pulls together everything they can measure concerning how much America’s households and various industries earn, consume and invest, and for what purposes. Over the last two weeks, however, two new developments should have reminded us that we know less about GDP than we usually believe.

Early this week, the BEA itself tacitly acknowledged that the GDP measure lags behind the actual economy. The Bureau released a set of changes in how it calculates GDP, designed to take better account of the economic value of ideas and intangible assets. Today, few among us would question the notion that new ideas can have great economic value. But some 15 years ago, long before smart phones, tablets and protein-based medications, the BEA started to study how to revise the GDP measure to take better economic account of innovations. This week, the Bureau announced that when a company undertakes research and development or creates a new book, music, or movie, those costs will be counted as investments that add to GDP, rather than ordinary business expenses, which do not.

In an instant, the official accounting of the economy’s total current product increased some $400 billion. Business profits also have been larger than we thought, because ordinary business expenses reduce reported profits, while investments do not. Most important, the revisions told us that American businesses and government, together, now invest just 2.1 percent of GDP in R&D — less investment than in the 1990s here, especially by businesses, and less than much of Europe.

While this week’s BEA changes bring us closer to an accurate picture of GDP, last week we learned how naïve we can be about blatant misuses and distortions of GDP. This story began four years ago, when two well-respected economists, Carmen Reinhardt and Kenneth Rogoff, published an economic history of financial crises. R&R’s timing (2009) was impeccable, and their book was a bestseller for an academic treatise. More important, it gave its authors wide public credibility when they issued a paper the following year, “Growth in a Time of Debt,” that claimed to have found a deep and strong connection between high levels of government debt and a country’s economic growth. The data, they reported, showed that when a country’s government debt reaches and exceeds the equivalent of 90 percent of GDP, its growth slumps very sharply.

With the big run-up in government debt spurred by the financial crisis and subsequent deep recession, conservatives who had waited a long time for a plausible economic reason to slash government found it in the new R&R analysis. And based on its authors’ newly-elevated reputations, conventional wisdom-mongers from think tanks to editorial boards echoed the new line on austerity. Even the most liberal administration since LBJ couldn’t resist the new meme. Despite a palpably weak economy, the President and congressional Democrats grudgingly accepted large budget cuts, and then pumped the economy’s brakes some more by insisting on higher taxes. And we were not the only ones so economically addled. As government debt in Germany, France, Britain and most other advanced countries rose sharply, conservatives there argued that less government was a necessity for average Europeans as well.

Just last week, we learned that the R&R 2010 analysis was so riddled with technical mistakes that its “findings” about what moves GDP are meaningless. When three young economists from the University of Massachusetts found they couldn’t replicate the results – the standard test for scientific findings — they took R&R’s model apart, piece by piece, to figure out why. It turns out that R&R – or more likely, their graduate assistants – left out several years of data for some countries, miscoded other data, and then applied the wrong statistical technique to aggregate their flawed data. And as bad luck would have it, all of their disparate mistakes biased their results in the same direction, amplifying the errors. In the end, instead of advanced countries experiencing recessionary slumps averaging – 0.1 percent growth once their government debt exceeded 90 percent of their GDP, the correct result was average growth of 2.2 percent carrying that debt burden.

Utterly wrong as R&R’s analysis was, the austerity advocates proceeded to badly misuse it. The authors had merely reported a correlation between high debt and negative growth – or, as we now know, between high debt and moderate growth – without saying what that correlation might mean. Hard line conservatives and their think tank supporters, here and abroad, quickly insisted it could only mean that high debt drives down growth. That can happen, but only rarely — when high inflationary expectations drive up interest rates, which at once slows growth and increases government interest payments. In the much more common case, Keynes still rules: Slow or negative growth leads to higher debt, not the other way around. In those more typical instances, cutting government only depresses growth more, further expanding government debt. Occasionally, the correlation of negative growth and high government debt reflects some independent third cause. The tsunami and nuclear meltdown that struck Japan in 2012, for example, simultaneously drove down growth and drove up government debt. And sometimes, there is no correlation: Britain carried government debt burdens of 100 percent to 250 percent of GDP from the early-to-mid-19th century, while it was giving birth to the Industrial Revolution.

The R&R analysis did not distinguish between these various scenarios. Yet, the conservative interpretation became the received public wisdom. The IMF, the World Bank and most politically-unaffiliated economists insisted that slashing government on top of weak business and household spending would only make matters worse. No matter. The inevitable result was not the stronger growth as promised, but persistently high unemployment and slow growth here, and double-dip recessions for much for Europe and Japan. In the end, R&R deserve less criticism for their mistakes than for their failure to correct the damaging distortions of their deeply flawed work.

The President’s Budget and the Case for Moving Beyond Austerity

April 10, 2013

The President released his FY 2014 budget today, and right off, it makes more economic sense than most of what passes for serious fiscal discussion in DC. In particular, it offers up new public investments, uses revenues and entitlement changes to restore long-term fiscal sanity, and phases in those changes down the road when the economy (hopefully) is stronger. Apart from Fed policy, the budget is government’s most powerful tool for affecting economic growth. So, the critical economic question is what budget approach would most effectively boost U.S. growth, for both the near-term and longer. The best answer for now is a plan built around an ambitious public investment agenda, serious measures to broaden the tax base and pare entitlement benefits for well-to-do retirees, and reform that finally resolve the festering issues left over from the 2008-2009 financial meltdown.

To appreciate why continued austerity would be economically reckless, just review the economic data from 2012. Yes, the United States grew faster than almost any other advanced economy. But that’s only because the Eurozone has been back in recession, France and Britain treaded water at 0.1 percent and 0.2 percent growth, and Germany grew less than 1 percent. Even in Northern Europe, Denmark contracted and Sweden expanded just 1.2 percent. So, the United States looked good with 2.2 percent growth — although only 0.4 percent in the final quarter of 2012 — in-between Canada’s 1.9 percent rate and Australia with 3.3 percent growth.

With such dismal growth, here and across the developed world, the budget’s first mission should be to strengthen it. There is no economic basis for any short-term spending cuts or tax increases, especially on top of the continuing, mindless sequester. To be sure, under very special conditions, austerity can stimulate economic activity in a weak economy — namely, when high inflationary expectations drive up interest rates, constraining investment and consumption. But those conditions have nothing to do with our current economy since interest rates here and across the advanced world are at or near record lows. The case for austerity, then, is simply politics, and the continuing calls from conservatives to slash federal programs merely mask their fervid preference for a small, weak government.

Economics matters more in this debate, and progressives should use our slow growth to promote an expanded agenda for public investment. They could call on Congress to dedicate an additional one percent of GDP to investments that will strengthen the factors that drive growth. That could mean, for example, more support for reforms to improve secondary education, reduce financial barriers to higher education, and provide retraining for any adult worker who wants it. It also could mean renewed public support to develop light rail systems across metropolitan areas and improve roads, ports and airports. This is also the right time economically for Washington to more actively promote the frontiers of technological innovation by expanding support for basic research. Finally, let’s review federal regulation with the aim of lowering barriers to new business formation. New and young businesses are reliable sources of new jobs and greater competition. Those elements, in turn, stimulate higher business investment, particularly in new technologies.

Progressives also would be well advised to accept long-term entitlement reforms that could accompany the new public investments. Since Social Security provides at least 90 percent of the income of more than one-third of retirees, pension reforms should focus on some form of means-testing. The best template to contain healthcare spending is more elusive. The Affordable Care Act includes a half-dozen measures calculated to slow rates of health spending. So, a bipartisan effort to strengthen those measures, perhaps with malpractice reforms to entice conservatives, would be a good place to start.

These initiatives, by themselves, still won’t be enough. Economic history teaches us — if only we’d listen — that the recovery that follows a financial crisis is always slow and bumpy, unless policymakers directly resolve the distortions that brought about the crisis. Many of those distortions in finance and housing linger on. In finance, the challenge is to get financial institutions to divest themselves of their remaining toxic assets and, equally important, further limit the impulse of these institutions to speculate in exotic financial instruments that remain only lightly regulated, like a hedge fund. The political resistance will be daunting, of course. But the economics is clear: Until such changes occur, Wall Street will not focus sufficient resources towards supporting home-grown business investment.

The challenge in housing is as difficult politically, though technically less complicated. Across the nation’s five largest mortgage holders, almost 12 percent of all mortgages were in serious trouble at the close of last year. Some 6.5 percent of all mortgages were delinquent, another 1.6 percent of them were in bankruptcy proceedings, and 3.6 percent were in foreclosure. So long as these rates are abnormally high, especially foreclosures, housing values will be weak — and the primary asset of most U.S. households will languish. Even worse, a weak housing market consigns most homeowners to stagnate economically or even grow steadily poorer; and that means they will consume less and the recovery will continue to be stunted. One sensible approach would be a new federal program to help people avoid home foreclosures through government bridge loans — like student loans — made available until the job market recovers.

This year’s budget debate will probably follow a now-familiar and sterile course, in which the President offers his plan, which is promptly met with partisan invective, followed by personal attacks from all sides. For average Americans to see their economic prospects really improve, progressives will have to forgo the partisan fights and instead use the Obama proposal to start a new public conversation, one focused on the challenges and changes necessary to get this economy back on track.