"Gross output [GO] is the natural measure of the production sector, while net output [GDP] is appropriate as a measure of welfare. Both are required in a complete system of accounts." --Steven Landefeld et al., "A New Architecture for the US National Accounts" 2006
"Gross Output, long advocated by Mark Skousen, will have a profound and manifestly positive impact on economic policy and politics." --Steve Forbes, Forbes magazine (April 14, 2014 issue)
It's now official! The United States is leading the way in providing a new quarterly measure of the economy that will compete with GDP. On Friday, April 26, 2014, The Bureau of Economic Analysis (part of the U. S. Department of Commerce) began releasing Gross Output on a quarterly basis. Go to www.bea.gov for more information.
It won't be long before other countries follow suit.
What is Gross Output? It is a measure of total sales volume at all stages of production, what we call the "make" economy. It includes all business-to-business transactions (B-to-B). GO hit $30 trillion in the 4th quarter of 2103, almost twice the size of GDP ($17 trillion). GDP is the standard yardstick for measuring final goods and services produced in a year, what we call the "use" economy. This is the first new economic aggregate since Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was introduced over fifty years ago.
It's about time. Starting with my work The Structure of Production in 1990 and Economics on Trial in 1991, I have made the case that we needed a new statistic beyond GDP that measures spending throughout the entire production process, not just final output. GO is a move in that direction – a personal triumph 25 years in the making.
A Victory of Supply-Side "Austrian" Economics
I consider the adopting of Gross Output on equal footing with GDP as a triumph of supply-side Austrian economics, perhaps the most significant advance in national income accounting since World War II. In many ways, it's a second round of debates between Hayek and Keynes, with GO representing the Austrian perspective (the stages of production), and GDP representing the Keynesian perspective (final effective demand). In a sense they are both winners, with both statistics now being used by government to determine the direction of the economy. GO attempts to measure total all B-to-B transactions, sales from the production of raw materials through intermediate producers to final retail. Based on my research, GO is a better indicator of the business cycle, and most consistent with economic growth theory. GO is a measure of the "make" economy, while GDP represents the "use" economy. Both are essential to understanding how the economy works.
What Really Drives the Economy: Consumer Spending, Government Stimulus, or Business Investment?
While GDP is a good measure of national economic performance, it has a major flaw: In ignoring B-to-B sales, GDP downplays the "make" economy, that is, the supply chain and intermediate stages of production needed to produce all those finished goods and services. This narrow focus of GDP has created much mischief in the media, government policy, and boardroom decision-making. For example, journalists are constantly overemphasizing consumer and government spending as the driving force behind the economy, rather than the supply-side: saving, business investment, and technological advances. In the latest US data, consumer spending represents 68% of GDP, followed by 18% by government. Consequently, the media naively concludes that any slowdown in retail sales or government stimulus is necessarily bad for the economy.
Private investment comes in a poor third at 16% (net exports makes up the difference at -2%).
So, for example, the New York Times recently reported, "Consumer spending makes up more than 70% of the economy, and it usually drives growth during economic recoveries." ("Consumers Give Boost to Economy," New York Times, May 1, 2010, p. B1) Or as the Wall Street Journal stated a few years ago, "The housing bust has chilled consumer spending — the largest single driver of the U. S. economy..." ("Home Forecast Calls for Pain," Wall Street Journal, September 21, 2011, p. A1.)
Or take this report during the economic recovery:
"Friday's estimates of second-quarter gross domestic product [1.3%, well below consensus forecasts] provided a sobering look at how a decline in public spending and investment can restrain growth....The astonishingly slow growth rate from April through June was due in large part to sluggish consumer spending and an increase in imports, which subtract from growth numbers. But dwindling government spending also held back growth." ("The Role of Government Spending," New York Times, July 29, 2011.) In short, by focusing only on final output, GDP under appreciates the B-to-B transactions, the money spent and economic activity generated at earlier stages in the production process. It's as though the manufacturers and shippers and designers aren't fully acknowledged in their contribution to overall growth or decline.
The Many Benefits of GO
Gross Output exposes these misconceptions. In my own research, I've discovered many benefits of GO statistics. First, Gross Output provides a more accurate picture of what drives the economy. Using GO as a more comprehensive measure of economic activity, spending by consumers turns out to represent less than 40% of total yearly sales, not 68-70% as commonly reported. Spending by business (private investment plus B-to-B sales) is substantially bigger, representing over 50% of economic activity. That's more consistent with economic growth theory, which emphasizes productive saving and investment in technology on the producer side as the drivers of economic growth. Consumer spending is largely the effect, not the cause, of prosperity.
Second, GO is significantly more sensitive to the business cycle. During the 2008-09 Great Recession, nominal GDP fell only 2% (due largely to countercyclical increases in government), but GO collapsed by over 7%, and intermediate inputs by 10%. Since 2009, nominal GDP has increased 3-4% a year, but GO has climbed more than 5% a year. GO acts like the end of a waving fan. (See chart below.)
The latest report shows that GO rose only 1.1% during the 4th quarter 2013, substantially less than GDP. That suggests a slowdown in the US economy.
I believe that Gross Output fills in a big piece of the macroeconomic puzzle. It establishes the proper balance between production and consumption, between the "make" and the "use" economy, between aggregate supply and aggregate demand. And it is more consistent with growth theory. As Steve Landefeld, director of the BEA, and co-editors Dale Jorgenson and William Nordhaus state in their work, A New Architecture for the U. S. National Accounts (University of Chicago Press, 2006), "Gross output [GO] is the natural measure of the production sector, while net output [GDP] is appropriate as a measure of welfare. Both are required in a complete system of accounts."
The history of these two economic statistics goes back to several pioneers. Two economists in particular had much in common — they were both Russian Americans who taught at Harvard University, and both won the Nobel Prize. Simon Kuznets did breakthrough work on GDP statistics in the 1930s. Following the Bretton Woods Agreement in 1946, GDP became the standard measure of economic growth. A few years later, Wassily Leontief developed the first input-output tables, which he regarded as a better measure of the whole economy. I-O accounts require examining the "intervening steps" between inputs and outputs in the production process, "a complex series of transactions...among real people."
I-O data created the first estimates of Gross Output. However, GO was not emphasized as an important macroeconomic tool. Leontief focused on the inner-workings between industries, not the aggregate GO. In my own work, The Structure of Production, was published in 1990 by New York University Press, I created a universal four stage model of the economy (see the diagram below) demonstrating the relationship between total spending in the economy and final output. (I also use it extensively in my textbook, Economic Logic, now in its 4th edition.)
In chapter 6, I made the point that GDP was not a complete picture of economic activity, and compared it to GO for the first time, contending that GO was more comprehensive and more accurately revealed that business investment was far bigger than consumption in the economy. I called it Gross National Output (GNO).
Some Defects in Gross Output Data
Since writing Structure, I discovered that the BEA's Gross Output does not include all sales at the wholesale and retail level. The BEA only includes value-added data for commodities after they become finished products. Gross sales are ignored at the final two stages of production. David Wasshausen, a BEA staff researcher, offers this rationale: since "there is no further transformation of these goods...to the production process, they are excluded from wholesale/retail trade output."
This is a mistaken, in my judgment. If you want to measure all economic activity in the production of new goods and services, you need to include gross sales at the wholesale and retail level. They are legitimate B-to-B sales.
Therefore, in the 2nd edition of Structure, published in 2007, I created my own aggregate statistic, Gross Domestic Expenditures (GDE), which includes gross sales at the wholesale and retail level and is therefore significantly larger (more than double GDP). I estimate GDE in 2013 at almost $38 trillion, and therefore consumer spending actually represents only about 31% of total economic activity.
The BEA has been compiling GO statistics from input-output data for years, but the media have largely ignored these figures because they came out only every five years (known as benchmark I-O tables). Since the early 1990s, the BEA has been estimating industry accounts annually. Even so, the data was never up-to-date like GDP—until now.
Under the leadership of BEA director Steve Landefeld, the BEA now has the budget to report the input-output data, including Gross Output, on a quarterly basis, and has already begun publishing quarterly data prior to 2014. This is a major breakthrough involving the cooperation of the Bureau of the Census, Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Federal Reserve Board, and other government agencies.
Controversies Over This New Statistic
Several objections have been made over the years to the use of GO and GDE. Economists are especially fixated over the perceived problem of "double counting" with GO and GDE. I am the first to note that GO and GDE involve double counting. A commodity is often sold repeatedly as it goes through the resource, production, wholesale and retail stages. Why not just measure the value added at each stage rather than double or triple count? they ask. GDP eliminates double counting and measures only the value added at each stage.
There are several reasons why double counting should not be ignored and is actually a necessary feature to understanding the overall economy. As accountants and financiers know, double counting is essential in business. No company can operate or expand on the basis of value added or profits only. They must raise the capital necessary to cover the gross expenses of the company — wages and salaries, rents, interest, capital tools and equipment, supplies and goods-in-process. GO and GDE reflect this vital business decision making at each stage of production. Can publicly-traded firms ignore B-to-B sales/revenues and only focus on earnings when they release their quarterly reports? Wall Street would object. Aggregate sales/revenues are important to measure on an individual firm and national basis.
In my own research, I find it interesting that GO and GDE are far more volatile than GDP during the business cycle. As noted in the chart above, sales/revenues rise faster than GDP during an expansion, and collapse during a contraction (wholesale trade fell 20% in 2009; retail trade dropped over 7%).
Economists need to explore the meaning of this cyclical behavior in order to make accurate forecasts and policy recommendations. Double counting counts.
Another objection involves outsourcing and merger/acquisitions. Companies that start outsourcing their products will cause an increase in GO or GDE, while companies that merge with another company will show a sudden decrease, even though there is essentially no change in final output (GDP).
That's a legitimate issue. Similar problems occur with GDP. When a homeowner marries the maid, the maid may no longer be paid and therefore her services may no longer be included in GDP. Black market activities often fail to show up in GDP data as well. Certainly if a significant trend develops in outsourcing or merger & acquisition activity, it will be reflected in GO or GDE statistics, but not necessarily in GDP. It bears further investigation to see how serious this issue is. No aggregate statistic is perfect, but GO and GDE offer forecasters an improved macro picture of the economy.
In conclusion, GO or GDE should be the starting point for measuring aggregate spending in the economy, as it measures both the "make" economy (intermediate production), and the "use" economy (final output). It complements GDP and can easily be incorporated in standard national income accounting and macroeconomic analysis. To see how, take a look at the 4th edition of my textbook, Economic Logic (Capital Press, 2014), available in paperback and Kindle.
Mark Skousen, Wall Street Journal (April 28, 2014): "At Last, a Better Economic Measure": http://on.wsj.com/PsdoLM
Steve Forbes, Forbes Magazine (April 14, 2014): New, Revolutionary Way To Measure The Economy Is Coming -- Believe Me, This Is A Big Deal: http://www.forbes.com/sites/steveforbes/2014/03/26/this-may-save-the-economoy-from-keynesians-and-spend-happy-pols/
Gene Epstein, economics editor, Barron's (April 28, 2014): "A New Way to Gauge the U. S. Economy": http://online.barrons.com/news/articles/SB50001424053111903409104579515671290511580?mod=BOL_columnist_latest_col_art