Economic Growth

Sex, Drugs and GDP in Europe

In September,  Eurostat waved a magic wand and increased the GDP in the European Union by 3.53 percent overnight. That is a full year's worth of very solid growth.  But it didn't make Europeans any wealthier because it was actually just due to a new definition of the way GDP is counted.  Eurostat (the economic statistics office of the European Commission) redefined GDP to include many transactions that were previously uncounted and are actually illegal across much of the Eurozone.
The new GDP definition includes illegal drug deals, prostitution, and even sales of stolen goods. Specifically, it includes illegal transactions as long as both parties agree to the transaction.
European-cannabis-lawsOstensibly, Eurostat is trying to capture part of the shadow economy that is typically not measured in GDP.  This makes sense, right? GDP is supposed to measure the output of final goods and services, so shouldn't we include all final goods and services even if the service is illegal?  In addition, this is complicated when the legality of goods and services varies across nations.  For example, the map to the right (from Wikimedia Commons) shows how cannabis laws vary across Europe - cannabis is essentially legal in some nations like the Netherlands but strictly illegal in others like France. 
So, normalizing the accounting standards across nations makes sense. But these illegal activities are difficult to measure.  In addition, if the illegal activities are a relatively stable portion of GDP, then there is really no bias when they are not included.  In fact, the new estimates, in an attempt to provide a more complete measure, may actually introduce more error into GDP measurement due to the difficulty of estimating illegal trade.  
So why the change in definition? There is another, perhaps insincere rationale: the new GDP measurements are a bit of an accounting trick to help nations lower their deficit to GDP ratios.  Many European nations are dealing with high deficit (and debt) to GDP ratios. The European Commission has explicit rules regarding these budget measures: a nation's deficit in a given fiscal year is not to exceed 3% of  their GDP, and the national debt is not to exceed 60% of GDP.  When nations exceed these bounds, the Council is directed to bring coercive measures called Excessive Deficit Procedures (EDRs). The Council has certainly been lax in enforcing these EDRs in recent years.  However, increasing GDP by simply redefining how it is measured automatically lowers deficit and debt ratios and helps nations with higher government debt levels. 
The figure below shows the effect of the new GDP definition on the GDP level each nation in 2013 (along with the overall EU and Euroarea).  The countries are ordered according to their GDP gains from the ESA 2010.
GDP percentage change ESA 10 mac
As you can see, GDP for Cyprus jumped 9.8% exclusively due to this accounting change.  This re-definition of GDP then shrank the debt-to-GDP ratio in Cyprus by a full half of a percentage point in 2013 - reducing it from 5.4% to 4.9%.  Therefore, this accounting rule change exaggerates any debt reduction in Cyprus, as they (hopefully) move closer to the EU goal of 3 percent.
So while new GDP accounting rules in Europe may normalize national income accounting across the continent, they are particularly helpful to those nations that already have high government debt levels.

Growth Continues in Third Quarter

 Real GDP grew 3.5% in the third quarter, according to the advance estimate released by the BEA.


A big piece of the growth came from net exports (exports minus imports).  Exports rose by 7.8% and imports fell by 2.4%.  Since net exports makes up a very small piece of total GDP, this contributed 1.3% to real GDP growth, but this is more than a third of the total growth in the third quarter.

Here is  a complete breakdown in the growth contribution from each of the four major components:


Overall, 3.5% is a solid growth rate, assuming this estimate holds up through revisions over the next three months.  However, it is slower that the growth experienced in the second quarter, which was 4.6 percent.  One big difference between the last two quarters is in investment which contributed just 0.2% to third quarter growth but contributed 2.9% in the second quarter.

Second Quarter Strongest since 2006

The BEA now estimates that real GDP grew by 4.6% in the second quarter. This revision means that the most recent quarter saw the fastest real GDP growth since 2006. That's a long time.  Before we get too excited, let's remember that this comes on the heels of negative growth in the first quarter.

Screen Shot 2014-09-26 at 4.31.06 PM

The growth was driven largely by changes in investment, which grew by $115.5 billion, or 19.1 percent on an annual basis.

Those who follow me on Twitter may recall that, back on July 3, I predicted that second quarter growth would come in at "something like 5 percent." My rationale was that the negative first quarter growth was likely due to short run supply factors associated with the polar vortex.  After all, the unemployment rate fell consistently throughout the spring.  Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.

GDP news gets better yet

The third (and final) GDP estimate for the third quarter revised growth up yet again, this time to 4.1%.  This figure indicates that growth was stronger in the third quarter than at any time since the end of 2011. The graph below shows quarterly growth rates since 2003.
Notice that 4.1% is larger than all but one quarter since before the Great Recession.  These are the kinds of growth rates we need if the economy is to truly recover from the Great Recession.  Finally, the revisions indicate that more of the growth came from consumption than previously thought.  The table below shows how each of the four categories of GDP spending contributed to overall growth. GDPTable2013.III

The takeaway:

  1. GDP growth in the third quarter was higher than all but one quarter since 2006.
  2. The new data shows greater growth in consumption.

Unemployment rate drops to 7%

The latest jobs report shows the unemployment rate dropped to 7.0% in November, the lowest level in five years.  In addition, the economy added 203,000 more jobs.


The last time the unemployment rate was this low was in the worst period of the Great Recession.  During the fourth quarter of 2008, the unemployment rate climbed from 6.1% to 7.3%, on its way to 10% by the end of 2009.  During 2009's bleak fourth quarter, real GDP contracted by more than 8%. 

Real GDP up 2.8% in Third Quarter

Real GDP grew at 2.8% in the third quarter of 2013, according to the advance estimate released today by the BEA.  This growth rate is very close to the long-run average growth rate for U.S. real GDP, which is 3%.  The graphic below plots quarterly GDP growth rates since 2003.


If this number holds up, it is the strongest growth the U.S. economy has had since the first quarter of 2012.  Keep in mind, this is the first estimate (also known as the advance estimate), and will be revised twice over the next two months. 


Happy 100th Birthday to the Automobile Assembly Line

Today's Detroit News has a nice article on both the development and impact of the assembly line in car production. Henry Ford brought assembly line technology to the car industry in 1913.  Before the assembly line, cars were luxury items, affordable only for the very wealthy.  Ford's innovation reduced costs dramatically and allowed for cheaper car prices, which made them more affordable for the masses. 

Ford was first to implement the line, allowing Ford Motor Co. to increase production of its Model T sevenfold and drop the price by nearly half — from $600 to $360 — during a five-year stretch from 1912 to 1916.

The innovation propelled the auto industry and the American economy to new heights, and changed the way ordinary Americans lived their lives. 

The assembly line is a great illustration of a technological advancement.  We often visualize new technology in terms of new goods (like the new Samsung Galaxy Gear).  However, the idea behind the item is the technological advancement.  New technology is a result of somebody arriving at a more efficient way of doing an old task.

The Great Depression was Very Bad

One of my pet peeves is the myopic view that our most recent recession (the Great Recession) is comparable to the contractions of the 1930s (the Great Depression).  Photographs from the Depression era are very helpful in dispelling this misconception. 

Today's Mail Online published a series of poignant Walker Evans photos from the 1930s, which illustrate the extent to which life in the Depression era was completely different from life in the past five years.

I know the Great Recession was difficult for many and that long-term unemployment remains stubbornly high.  But let's not equate it to the Great Depression.  After all, according to this website, nearly 500 new Starbucks locations opened in the United States during the worst part of the Great Recession (between 2007 and 2009).


CBO now Projects Higher National Debt Levels

Today, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) revised upward its estimates for future U.S. federal debt levels.  As the graph below shows, the CBO  projects the federal debt held by the public to reach 100% of GDP in 2038. 

How bad is this news? Just last year, the CBO predicted that this debt measure would actually fall to just 53% by 2030.

The reasons for this massive revision are summarized nicely by Peter Coy at Bloomberg Business Week.  In short, they include:

  1. New budget agreements from January, which made the Bush tax cuts permanent for many Americans
  2. Longer life expectancy estimates, which mean higher costs for both Social Security and Medicare
  3. A growing number of worker disability claims
  4. Higher unemployment forecasts, which means lower GDP and higher Debt-to-GDP ratio

These factors work together to substantially worsen the long-term prospects of the U.S. national debt level.

Shanghai, Before and After

The Daily Telegraph offers one of the most vivid illustrations of how institutions affect economic growth. It does this by showing photos of Shanghai in 1987 and in 2013.  The contrast is stunning.

Start with the 2013 view of Shanghai, the financial center, or "New York City", of China.

Now, compare it to the view in 1987.

The difference?  Private property rights.  Institutions really do matter.