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Redefining Recovery

How to Fake Economic Growth


My recent article, ‘Economic Recovery by Statistical Manipulation’, written July 29, 2013, forewarned that revisions to US GDP data due on July 31 for the April-June quarter would likely show a larger GDP and growth for the US for the quarter, as well as for earlier years.  GDP data published today, July 31, 2013 by the US government’s Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) have confirmed that prediction.

A poll of dozens of economists by the Reuters international news agency prior to the 2nd quarter GDP data release showed professional economists were collectively forecasting no more than 1% GDP growth for the 2nd quarter. As noted in our previous article, some were forecasting GDP as low as 0.5% for the quarter. The BEA’s GDP first estimate for the 2nd quarter indicates a 1.7% GDP growth. What happened to explain such a great divergence from forecasts and the BEA data?

As Reuters notes, in a follow up to the BEA release, “comprehensive revisions to the data cast the economy in a better light than previously.” Not only has the most recent quarter of GDP been boosted, from 1.1% in the first quarter of 2013 to 1.7% now in the second (compared to forecasts of 1%), but GDP for all of calendar 2012 has been revised upward as well, from the prior official 2.1% to 2.8%. That’s a 33% upward revision.

Today’s GDP revisions—which will continue henceforth to boost future GDP numbers—focus largely on boosting the contribution of business investment to GDP.  The revisions have resulted in significant increases in the estimates for business investment and will continue to do so in the future. It is not necessary to bother readers with the arcane details; suffice to say that the boosts to investment totals Obamas_Economyhave to do with changes in how depreciation is calculated, pension accounting, and other items. The changes in depreciation in particular have resulted in GDP upward revision.

Since GDP is part of what’s called the ‘National Income Accounts’. Like all accounting, there are two sides to the ledger. GDP measures the value of goods and services produced in the economy; the other side of the accounting ledger is GDI, or gross domestic income, which measures the corresponding income generated from that production.  That means that the upward revision based on depreciation-driven business investment translates into an upward revision of business income in GDI.

As economist, Dean Baker, has noted in his commentary on the revisions today, “The new measure added $250 billion to depreciation in the corporate sector for 2012” and that “the profit share of net corporate output (as percent of GDP) rose to 25.5 percent in 2012, the fourth highest share in the post-war era.”

A closer inspection of the 1.7% US 2nd quarter GDP number shows almost all of the major gains in the economy came from business investment. There are four major ‘areas’ of GDP: government spending, exports in excess of imports, consumer spending, and business investment.

The Reuters commentary on today’s GDP release indicated that consumer spending (70% of the US GDP) slowed in the second quarter significantly from the first. So it doesn’t explain the 1.7% unexpected GDP rise.  Similarly, government spending (typically 24% of the economy) contracted for the third straight quarter. So nothing there to justify the 1.7%.  Exports rose, but imports rose faster, which translates to a negative contribution to GDP. It was mostly “a turnaround in investment in nonresidential structures and gains in outlays on equipment and intellectual products”, according to Reuters, which explains the 1.7%.

Not surprisingly, that’s the precise area in which the GDP upward revisions have been focused.

Change the way depreciation is defined, adding to corporate profits in addition to the already record growth for profits, throw in new categories of what constitutes business investment—and now you have a 30% or  more higher GDP.

If you can’t generate a sustained real economic recovery for five years with past and current economic policies—then just redefine the definition of recovery itself.

Dr. Jack Rasmus is Professor of Political Economy at St. Marys College and the author of the 2012 book, Obama’s Economy: Recovery for the Few, Pluto books, and host of the weekly radio show, ‘Alternative Visions’, on the Progressive Radio Network. His blog is jackrasmus.com, website: www.kyklosproductions.com, and twitter handle, #drjackrasmus.