New insights into GDP

A new book “The Growth Delusion” by David Pilling, a Financial Times journalist, provides interesting insights into our obsession with economic growth and how we measure it. This blog highlights only some of his key points which are relevant to A’level and IB economics. The book is definitely worth a read. Modern GDP statistics (“the value of goods and services produced in a given period”)  have their origin in the USA around the 1930s with the work of Kuznets, who produced the first national income data to see the impact of the Great Depression on the US economy. They became more important during the Second World War when the UK government, prompted by Keynes, and the US government needed to be able to manage the war effort to maximum effect while still providing enough resources for consumption.

Pilling points out the many failings of GDP as an economic indicator such as the way it takes no account of what is produced, merely its value. Thus he points out that  wars can be good for GDP if they involve countries producing more tanks, weapons and aircraft. Similarly, two forks are, in GDP terms, as useful as a knife and fork, but less useful in reality when trying to spread jam on toast or cut one’s steak.  He is also scathing about the use of averages and points out that while a rich country might have a high average GDP, and therefore, according to economists, a high standard of living, if this is held by a very small number of people, the standard of living of the majority might be below that of a country with a lower average of GDP.

Measurement of GDP is difficult since it is impossible to measure every transaction and therefore relies on surveys e.g. the Living Costs and Food Survey for about 5,000 households and monthly surveys of approximately 45,000 businesses. The development of technology has made the measurement of GDP more difficult. The UK Government set up an inquiry under Charlie Bean – OB and former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England – who made comments similar to those expressed by David Pilling in terms of activities which are now much harder to measure and value such as using Google Maps rather than buying a paper OS map or streaming films rather than buying or renting DVDs. Another problem is that many things have become cheaper and better – my new recorder is easier to use and records more than a previous DVD recorder  but, in GDP terms, it is less valuable because it is cheaper.

There have been many debates over what should be included in GDP and although these might seem largely irrelevant, they matter when trying to compare countries’ GDP. In the past certain things, such as the sale of cannabis in cafes in Holland were legal and therefore recorded while a similar purchase in Romford would not be counted. However Eurostat wanted consistency among its members and decided that all transactions for goods or services involving money were to be recorded, whether they legal, illegal, good or bad. Therefore, in a purely numerical way, those who argue in favour of increasing GDP as being a key government objective, could argue that encouraging the sale of drugs or prostitution is as valid as increased spending on education or health – something even an economist would find hard to justify! More relevantly sales of guns in the UK  are part of the shadow economy but in the US they are legal, widespread and contribute to their GDP.

Pilling also considers the problems of measuring GDP in developing countries where a significant percentage of production takes place in the shadow economy; for example in Zimbabwe only 6% of the is formally employed. Similarly, my purchase of bottled water from Waitrose  is counted in the UK’s GDP, but the effort of a African villager who spends hours walking to and from a stream or well to collect “free” water has no value according to GDP statistics. He describes the way lights at night are used to indicate economic activity in different areas with increases in intensity over time indicating growth. Such methods indicate that the proportion of economic activity occurring in villages, and not always measured, is more significant than thought and therefore the GDP of many developing countries is, similarly, larger than previously calculated.


Structural Unemployment in Australia

Structural unemployment has many causes; advances in technology can make some jobs redundant, offshoring production to low-cost producers means a lack of domestic demand for certain workers, and a permanent decline in demand can make some industries obsolete.

This article, courtesy of Ryan Z, is an illustration of the 2nd cause mentioned above. Australian’s, obviously, will still buy cars, but all will now be imported as domestic production ends. Car plant workers will find it difficult to find work because their skills are no longer in demand. They either move overseas to find work or retrain. The latter is far more likely but does come at a cost to the individual, through lost earnings, and the government, who are likely to partly fund re-training programmes. Building a flexible workforce can help reduce the level of structural unemployment, but this is far from easy.



Falling Share Prices – Causes and Effects

This week has seen major falls in share prices across the world with $6 trillion being wiped off world share values.  America’s Dow Jones index dropped 5.2%, Japan’s Nikkei index fell 8.1% and the UK’s FTSE index fell 4.7%, the lowest it has been for 15 months, while in Japan and America the falls broke records for the size of their drop since October 2008.

The initial reason for the fall was, paradoxically, good US economic data as their service sector boomed and wage levels grew at the fastest rate since the start of the decade. This good news meant that it is now more likely that US interest rates will rise sooner and by more than had previously been anticipated. Mark Carney reinforced this view when he expressed similar sentiments about the future of UK interest rates.

Although a rise in interest rates has been expected for some time as the world economy’s growth accelerated, the reminder that it might occur soon has come as an unpleasant shock. The scaling back of QE by central banks is expected to reduce the ability to borrow cheaply, some of which has financed recent purchases in shares. Financial investors expect that the forthcoming rise in interest rates will reduce company profits, therefore reducing the demand for shares. Simultaneously existing shareholders might be encouraged to sell quickly before prices fall further, thereby increasing the excess demand. In addition, the economic uncertainty was increased by the fall in the value of bitcoin by approximately 50% since the state of the year.

Economists are trying to decide whether we are currently experiencing a “correction” or  are entering a bear market, where prices fall by more than 20%. The “correction” proponents believe that shares are over-priced in terms of their price compared to their earnings – the price:earnings ratio – and therefore the fall was due. However there is concern that the behaviour of investors, whether in shares, currencies or commodities, sometimes leads to markets over-shooting since falls (increases) in price encourage selling (buying) which further reduces (increases) the price.

According to economic theory, the fall in share prices might lead to a negative wealth effect (the idea that consumption is determined by one’s wealth as well as one’s income). However, given that many shareholders are in the upper income brackets, their marginal propensity to consume will be low and therefore the effect will small. More significant might be the general impact on consumer and business confidence from the media reports about the falling share prices. As Keynes wrote in his General Theory,  “animal spirits” outweigh the  “weighted average of quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities.”.

The Recent Rise in Consumption

Household spending has returned to levels not seen since before the financial crisis in the year to March 2017 in real terms, reaching £554 per week. The last time it was at this rate, adjusted for inflation was in 2005/6. Transport is still the largest category but leisure spending overtook housing spending to reach second place. A key driver of the increase was in pensioner spending (with almost 20% of their spending being on foreign holidays and their pets!). However the increase in spending exceeds the increase in income meaning that the rise is being financed either be running down savings or it is being financed by increases in personal debt which might cause problems if interest rates rise over the year, as they are predicted to do.

The data excludes spending on mortgages, rent, house insurance, council tax and house maintenance and were they to be included, this would make housing the largest category, over twice the size of transport.

It is interesting to compare the current figures with those from 2007, the year before the financial crisis affected households in the UK. Although food has slipped slightly in percentage terms as its price has fallen in real terms and communications and recreation have increased their share, the percentages have changed relatively little.

               2007                    2016-17
  Per Cent RANK £ pw Per Cent RANK
Transport 14.6 1 79.70 14.4 1
Recreation 11.1 4 73.50 13.3 2
Housing, fuel and power 13.0 2 72.60 13.1 3
Food and non-alcoholic drinks 11.3 3 58.00 10.5 4
Restaurants and hotels 8.9 5 50.10 9.0 5
Household goods and services 6.7 6 39.30 7.1 6
Clothing and footwear 3.6 7 25.10 4.5 7
Communication 2.7 9 17.20 3.1 8
Alcoholic drinks, tobacco and narcotics 3.1 10 11.90 2.1 9
Health 1.3 11 7.30 1.3 10
Education 2.7 8 5.70 1.0 11
Miscellaneous goods and services 20.9   113.80 20.5  
TOTAL 100.00   554.20 100.0