The GDP obsession

Today initial estimates of Britain’s quarterly GDP figures have been published. It has become a very silly circus. The BBC Today programme was giving it a lot air time this morning, in spite of not knowing what the crucial number was. Instead they made do with economists’ guesses. This is what they usually do, in spite of the fact that the guesses are often very wrong – though this time they were spot on. A much more informative discussion will be possible once the figures are released, and experts have had a chance to root around the detail. But by then it won’t be news, and the BBC won’t cover it. Meanwhile some even more meaningless political posturing is taking place. I just wish economists, journalists and politicians would show a bit of humility on the topic. As a measure GDP is not all it is cracked up to be.

The first problem is that, although it is quite a simple concept in theory, it is very complex in practice, making the implications of movements difficult to understand. In the UK economists have been puzzling over the fact that the current economic downturn (often trumpeted as being one of the worst in history) has not affected jobs nearly as much as previous downturns. This is often articulated as a “productivity gap”, since if income, and hence production,  is falling faster than the number of jobs, productivity (production divided by jobs) must be falling. The Institute of Chartered Accountants’ Economia magazine ran a vey interesting article on this (Measure for Measure), which simply asked a whole series of prominent economists what they thought was going on. It was very revealing. Quite a few took a very superficial view, without probing behind the numbers much, speculating a bit, and then launching into some hobby horse or other, such as the need to stimulate aggregate demand, or let companies go bust more readily. But a number had clearly taken some trouble to get behind the numbers to understand what was going on. And when they did this, they picked up a very complicated picture, and they started to worry that the numbers were at all meaningful or accurate. Several speculated that the official figures were understating the level of GDP because they were not measuring some aspect of the economy properly, usually associated with services and new technology. They further speculated that, though GDP was artificially low now, this would be corrected in due course, when artificially high growth numbers would come through.

Another point that came through was that a large part of the “gap” arose from the fact that North Sea oil and financial services had shrunk. These sectors gave rise to a lot of product (albeit largely fictitious in the case of financial services) but not many jobs. Which leads me to a second problem with GDP: it doesn’t measure economic wellbeing very well. If these two sectors shrank, and it mainly affected a small number of very wealthy people, surely we can take its loss with a bit of a shrug? A big problem with the growth before the downturn in 2007 was that it benefited so few people (especially a problem in the US). Median real incomes and unemployment levels tell you a lot more. (There is an interesting article in todays FT by Richard Lambert on this). And, of course, there is the whole issue of wider wellbeing, which depends on the quality of personal relationships, the environment, and so on.

So, where does that leave any assessment of the current state of the British economy? The first point is that, although GDP numbers may not be as bad as we thought, economic wellbeing is not good for large parts of the population. Pay is not keeping up with prices. It is particularly hard for those with public sector jobs or dependent on benefits. A little bit of confidence is returning, and this will be good if, and only if, it leads businesses to invest more. If ordinary people simply decide to save less, and spend more, we will get a short-term lift to economic wellbeing, but it will not be sustainable.

Well, that is my personal view. Optimists, like the Observer commentator William Keegan, who also writes an article in Economia, think that there is a lot of spare capacity in the economy (people who are underemployed, for example, and working part time) so that any lift in demand will be self-sustaining, and that it doesn’t matter where it comes from – his preferred choice being from government, by cutting VAT and slowing down government cuts. Once this capacity is being used, we will be in a better position to reduce the size of government, if that is what is needed to make the economy sustainable in the long term. You hear a lot of this sort of view from professional economists, even very distinguished ones. To such an extent, indeed, that austerity policies are described as “discredited” by many, on the grounds that they have not delivered the steady GDP growth that these economists say is feasible.

Supporters of austerity are gloomier about the longer term economic outlook. The spare capacity highlighted by Mr Keegan and his friends is illusory: it is mainly in the wrong places. The economy before the crisis was unsustainable: too dependent on borrowing and a trade deficit. Furthermore, there are huge headwinds, in particular from an aging population and a workforce that will shrink (though Britain is not as badly off in this respect as many other economies, thanks in large part to a more liberal view of immigration, which politicians now regret). The economy has to be rebalanced and made more efficient: that means destroying a lot of the less efficient jobs, and creating new ones elsewhere. The wrong sort of economic growth will slow this down and simply create a bigger crisis later. There is no alternative to a slow and painful path of adjustment.

It is an old argument, with resonances of that between Keynes and the Treasury in the 1930s. Keynes is usually held to have been right then: the main problem was lack of demand, and it just needed to be kicked into place by government action. Many economists use this as evidence that we should repeat that prescription this time. But the world was a very different place then; there is no equivalent of the incipient manufacturing revolution to sustain growth now.

And this seems to be the biggest cost to an obsession with GDP. It gives economists the illusion that the issues are much the same, regardless of what is happening in the real economy. It is only when you try to get behind the numbers and ask searching questions, that you can start to understand the real policy options. Today’s figures will tell us very little.