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A Final Note on the GDP Revisions


On Wednesday, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, undertook a major revision of GDP statistics. The result was a major upward revision of GDP numbers for the 2nd quarter and for 2012. While the BEA revises numbers and its methods every five years, this time the revisions were extraordinary and particularly significant.

GDP for 2012, as I pointed out in my prior article, ‘Economic Recovery by Statistical Manipulation’, was raised by almost 33% as a result of the BEA revisions–from the 2.1% annual growth to 2.8%. Moreover, the consensus forecasts by economists for the recent 2nd quarter 2013, which averaged 0.9% according to the Reuters survey, came in at nearly twice that, at 1.7%, due to the revisions. This is not a normal upward revision, most of which made in previous years by the BEA had very little effect on GDP numbers.

Changes made by the BEA to the contribution of investment to GDP were especially important. As I noted in my previous article, nearly all other areas of economic sectors that make up GDP were flat or declining in the 2nd quarter. In other words, the massive upward revision to GDP in the 2nd quarter, as reported by the BEA, appears largely attributable to its revisions to how investment is defined. If how we define investment can have that big an impact on GDP, the changes should not be accepted without challenge.

My article has raised some hackles in some quarters, including among some segments of the ‘liberal left’ that continues to be apologetic for the Obama administration despite its abysmal record economically, in terms of civil rights, wars, concessions to corporations, and so forth for the past five years.

Some among them claim I am arguing there is a ‘conspiracy’ to falsely boost GDP by the Obama administration. But I nowhere raise the charge of conspiracy in my article. Notwithstanding that, those who charge me with such are rather naïve if they think that the BEA bureaucrats, before they reported such numbers, didn’t check it out first with the Obama administration and get its ok. And that it is quite likely there was even more to it than mere reporting of things to come. Who knows for sure. But with what’s going on with data these days in Washington, it’s not realistic to assume the BEA changes had nothing to do with politics. Perhaps not overtly, but tacitly and maybe even covertly.

Much of the increase in investment by the BEA’s redefinition is associated with research and development expenditures by business. The BEA previously considered R&D an ‘expense’. Now it’s an investment. Where does the slippery slope of redefining expenses as investment stop? Obama has proposed in his 2014 budget to significantly increase tax credits to businesses for R&D expenses. That will significantly boost R&D investment. That spending in turn will boost GDP still further in months to come. Does anyone naively think the two developments are completely unrelated? It’s not paranoid to raise the point. Nor is it conspiratorial. It’s just politics, in this day and age when Washington is intent on providing benefit after policy benefit to its corporate friends.

Nevertheless, my critics—some New York left liberal types in particular—insist on defending the BEA and the administration. My insistence that the 33%-50% boost to GDP numbers is not a ‘normal’ revision is dismissed as ‘paranoid’ and ‘conspiracy’ theory. They argue that the changes to investment by the BEA, producing the 33%-50% GDP increase, are reasonable. But are they?

These critics think that adding more than $500 billion to 2012 GDP is normal. They point out that the BEA revisions had little effect on long run GDP since the 1960s. That’s true. But the changes have had a big impact on GDP since the so-called end of the Great Recession in 2009, and especially in the latest 18 months. They are ‘frontloaded’, in other words, having their greatest effect on GDP during the ‘recovery’ period since 2009, during which time it has become clear neither fiscal or monetary policies have done much to generate a sustained economic recovery. So that the 33%-50% boost to GDP in the last 18 months does result in making the failure at recovery appear significantly less so. To point that out is to engage in ‘agitprop’, I’m told.

Critics also pooh pooh my point that gross domestic income, GDI, is rising faster than GDP, even though the likes of Bernanke, chair of the Federal Reserve, does not think the trend is unimportant—as I quoted him in my original article. Something of import is going on here, between gross domestic income (GDI) and gross domestic product (GDP). The historical ratios between the two are changing in the last decade. But why so, we should ask? In reply to my critics, of course incomes from capital gains, dividends, etc. are not directly included in GDP calculations. But the BEA revisions, by increasing investment, do raise corporate profits (as Dean Baker has correctly pointed out, by more than $250 billion in 2012 alone). Corporate profits then get distributed to shareholders in the form of dividends and other capital gains. Raising investment by redefinition raises profits, which raises the distribution of those profits in the form of dividends, capital gains, etc. Ok, that direction of causation is clear.

But should we raise the possibility that the direction may be reversed as well? To explore that point: it is a fact that multinational corporations, for example, now earn on average 25% of their total profits from what is called ‘portfolio investment’—i.e. from financial speculation. Some like General Electric even more. Could it be that corporations are counting more of such profits in the totals reported to the BEA, that then gets reported in GDP-GDI calculations? Doing so might permit them to claim tax reductions on those portfolio profits, just as they do on production profits. So there could be a motive for counting profits from financial speculation as part of GDI, which might explain why BEA corporate profits (and GDI) are running ahead of GDP in recent years. It’s a legitimate question to raise, and doing so is not to suggest ‘conspiracy’ or reflect ‘paranoia’.

There are serious problems with GDP reporting if GDI is somehow rising faster than the value of those goods and services themselves. But critics of my view believe that to raise such questions is to ‘insult their friends at the BEA who are all skilled and honest servants’, as one of my ‘left liberal’ critics puts it in a recent reply to my article.

There are many things wrong with GDP as a measure of how the US economy is doing. But when GDP is revised upward by a stroke of the pen by such a significant amount, we should not be overly defensive of those responsible, or of the politicians who either collude in the process or let it happen.

To say now, as the BEA is saying with its recent GDP revisions, that ‘expenses’ constitute investment is a major shift of definition of GDP. It has resulted in a record upward revision of the numbers, and a slippery slope to further false upward revisions that will follow no doubt. Perhaps the ‘expenses’ incurred in derivatives investing by multinational corporations will soon be considered ‘investment’ in the next round of BEA revisions.

Government data should not be accepted on its face value. We should be challenging it, especially when changes to it are so significant as is the case of the recent GDP revisions. Doing so should not critiqued on a personal level, calling those who raise challenges ‘paranoid’ and ‘conspiracy theorists’. That’s just juvenile. We should debating these issues, not polemicizing over them.

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

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