Consumer Spending is Not 70% of the Economy

Journalists, commentators, and economists often say that consumer spending makes up 70% of the U.S. economy. Indeed, it’s easy to find several examples of that claim in today’s coverage of the latest GDP data (e.g., here). And, full confession, I’ve used that phrase a few times myself.

There’s just one problem with the 70% claim: it’s wrong. Consumer spending actually makes up only 60% of the economy.

This discrepancy exists because national income accounting doesn’t always mix well with simple arithmetic. If you look at data for 2009, you will find that consumer spending totaled $10.1 trillion, while GDP was $14.3 trillion, both measured in current dollars. Put those together, and it appears that consumer spending is about 71% of the economy (= 10.1 / 14.3). (You get almost the exact same percentage if you do the calculation with real values, but that introduces other complexities.)

That calculation is so simple, it’s easy to understand why it has a fan club. But there’s a hidden problem. To see it, it helps to do the same calculation for other parts of the economy. Again using current dollar figures for 2009, you will find the following:

     Consumer Spending            71%
     Investment                            12%
     Government                          21%
     Exports                                    11%

Notice anything strange? If you add these four sectors of the economy together, you discover that they account for 114% of GDP. In other words, consumer spending, investment, government spending, and exports, when combined, are one-seventh larger than the total economy.

This apparent paradox—the components of the economy are bigger than the economy itself—is resolved when you consider how the economic data handle imports. In order to determine gross domestic production, the statisticians add up domestic purchases and then subtract imports. So the full national income accounts for 2009 show the following shares of the economy:

     Consumer Spending           71%
     Investment                            12%
     Government                          21%
     Exports                                    11%
     Imports                                 -14%

These figures add to 100%, as they should. They also demonstrate why consumer spending was not really 71% of the U.S. economy in 2009. Total consumer spending was indeed 71% of the size of the economy, but part of that spending went to imported goods (clothes, coffee, cars, etc.). If you want to know how much consumers contributed to U.S. GDP, you need to take the 71% figure and then deduct the portion that was spent on imports.

I am not aware of a simple way to do this calculation using the data in the regular GDP reports. Over at Mandel on Innovation and Growth, however, Michael Mandel provides a useful discussion of a paper that does this calculation for several recent years, including 2008. (Michael deserves credit for taking a leading role in fighting back against the claim that consumers are 70% of the economy.)

The paper, “Induced Consumption: Its Impact on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and Employment” by Carl Chentrens and Art Andreassen (you can find it in this conference proceeding) makes exactly the import adjustment I described above. For 2008, it concludes that the relative shares are as follows

                                        Unadjusted                   Adjusted

Consumer Spending           71%                           61%
Investment                            14%                           11%
Government                         20%                           17%
Exports                                   12%                            11%
Imports                                 -17%

The authors find similar results in previous years, including 1999, 2002, and 2006.

Bottom line: Consumer spending really makes up about 60% of the U.S. economy. But you’d be hard-pressed to know that from the usual GDP data.

Note: The authors make a second adjustment for “induced activity”, that Michael Mandel also picks up on. That makes the consumer share seem even smaller. I have serious reservations about that adjustment, however, particularly when trying to answer questions about (a) the overall size and composition of the economy and (b) its long-term growth. Thus, I favor the 60% figure.

Consumers Boosted GDP in Q1

The Bureau of Economic Analysis released its first look at Q1 GDP growth this morning. BEA estimates that GDP grew at a solid 3.2% annual pace in the first quarter. That’s slower than the 5.6% pace of the previous quarter, but is otherwise the strongest showing since the third quarter of 2007.

The following chart illustrates how much various types of economic activity added to (or subtracted from) first quarter growth:

The big story is the return of the American consumer. Their spending increased at a 3.6% pace during the first quarter, the fastest pace in three years. (Consumer spending added 2.6 percentage points to overall growth because it makes up about 70% of the economy).

Business investment in equipment and software (E&S) showed continued strength, rising at a 13.4% pace (and adding 0.8 percentage points to overall growth). That’s down from the blistering 19% recorded in the fourth quarter, but is still remarkably strong.

Inventories–the big story in Q4–continued to boost growth as well. Inventories actually increased in the first quarter, after seven quarters of declines.

On the downside, construction continued to suffer, with both housing and non-residential structures declining. Government spending fell as well, as reduced spending by state and local governments more than offset a moderate increase in purchases by the federal government.

Talking about the Economy at Milken

This morning I participated in a panel discussion at the Milken Global Conference about the state of the economy. Here’s the video.

Fellow panelists were:

Ron Bloom, Senior Advisor, U.S. Treasury Department; White House Senior Counselor for Manufacturing Policy

John Engler, President and CEO, National Association of Manufacturers

Michael McCallister, President and CEO, Humana Inc.

David Simon, Chairman and CEO, Simon Property Group Inc.

Moderator: Ross DeVol, Executive Director, Economic Research, Milken Institute

We covered lots of material during the panel – policy responses to the financial crisis, stimulus, boosting exports, the fiscal outlook, etc. If you want to hear my budget stump speech, that begins at about 57:30 in the video.

At the end of the panel, Ross DeVol polled the audience about the strength of the economy. A whopping 52% said they thought the economy would be weaker in the next few years than is predicted by the consensus of economic forecasters. Several of the panelists agreed (including me with the caveat that this year may surprise on the upside). But the contrarian in me is wondering whether this agreement might itself be a sign that the economy will be stronger than anticipated.

Crisis and Aftermath: The Economy and the Budget

Most of official Washington was closed today in the wake of Snowmageddon. But not the Senate Budget Committee, which went ahead as planned with its hearing “Crisis and Aftermath: The Economic Outlook and Risks for the Federal Budget and Debt.

The three witnesses were Carmen Reinhart of the University of Maryland (famous for her work with Ken Rogoff on the history of financial crises), Simon Johnson of MIT (famous for his blog, The Baseline Scenario), and yours truly.

You can find my written testimony here. You can watch the hearing from a link on the website.

The gist of my message was:

Our nation is on an unsustainable fiscal path. If current policies continue, we will run trillion-dollar deficits in the years ahead—even after the economy recovers—and the public debt will rise faster than our ability to pay it. Persistent deficits and rising debt will undermine American prosperity, threaten beneficial social programs, and weaken our position in the world.

Those threats deserve immediate attention but our economy remains fragile. Payroll employment has fallen by 8.4 million jobs since the start of the recession, and long-term unemployment is at record levels. Recent data have provided some glimmers of hope—strong GDP in the fourth quarter and a decline in the unemployment rate in January—but our economy has a very long way to go.

Policymakers thus face a difficult challenge of balancing concern about current economic conditions with a meaningful response to our looming fiscal crisis. In thinking about that balance, they should keep five points in mind:

1. Don’t expect a rapid recovery. The recession does appear to be behind us, but the economy has much healing ahead of it.

2. Uncertainty has been holding the economy back. Uncertainty discourages investment and hiring and therefore undermines growth. The good news is that economic uncertainty has declined sharply over the past year, creating an environment more conducive to growth. The bad news, however, is that policy uncertainties are enormous. From expiring tax provisions, to uncertainty about the rules-of-the-road in the financial sector, to major policy initiatives on health insurance, climate change, etc., businesses and families are uncertain about the future policy environment. That discourages investment and hiring. Some of these uncertainties are unavoidable as Congress deals with important issues. But lawmakers should look for opportunities to reduce unnecessary policy uncertainty.

3. Persistent deficits and rising debts pose a serious risk to long-term economic growth. Concerns about the near-term economic outlook should not deter Congress from taking steps to strengthen our fiscal position over the next decade. Although major steps toward fiscal consolidation should not take effect in 2010 and 2011, Congress should begin to plan now for deficit reduction and debt stabilization in later years. That plan should include clear goals (e.g., a target trajectory for the debt-to-GDP ratio) and credible means for achieving them. President Obama outlined some steps in this direction in his budget, but I believe they fall far short of what is required. Under his official budget the debt would grow faster than the economy in every single year. That’s unacceptable.

The President has proposed that a fiscal commission be tasked with stabilizing the debt-to-GDP in 2015 and beyond. That proposal is worth serious consideration. However, I believe any commission should have a more ambitious goal–e.g., reducing the debt-to-GDP ratio to 60% by the end of the budget window. In addition, I wonder whether a commission created by executive order will have sufficient political legitimacy and power to have much effect.

4. A credible plan to reduce future deficits would help keep long-term interest rates low, thus strengthening the current recovery.

5. In the long-term, bringing our deficits under control will require both spending restraint and increased revenues. Spending restraint should receive greater emphasis both because spending is the primary driver of our long-run budget imbalances and because higher government spending may slow economic growth. Given the government’s existing commitments, however, it is unlikely that spending restraint alone can put our nation on a sustainable fiscal trajectory. As policymakers consider how to finance a larger government, they should therefore give special attention to making our tax system more efficient. That means thinking about ways to tax consumption rather than income, ways to broaden the tax base rather than increase rates, and, ways to tax undesirable things like pollution rather than desirable things like working, saving, and investing.

8 Million Jobs Lost

Kudos to Floyd Norris over at the New York Times for characterizing total job losses to date as 8 million jobs, not “just” 7.2 million. As I discussed on Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the number of jobs in March 2009 was 824,000 lower than it previously thought. But BLS won’t include this adjustment in its official data until early February.

The official, as-yet-unadjusted data indicate that 7.2 million jobs have been lost since the recession started in December 2007. The future revision to March figures, however, implies that a better estimate would be 8 million.

We can now expect several months in which commentators use different figures for total job losses. Those steeped in the details, like Norris, will use the 8 million figure. Those less-attuned to the details, like the authors of the NYT’s lead editorial (just four pages after Norris’s article), will use the 7.2 million figure.

Norris also addresses the obvious question: Why did BLS miss the March level of jobs by such a large amount? The answer is that BLS has to estimate jobs gained and lost at certain employers, and their model is not doing as well as we (or it) would hope:

The official job numbers are based on a monthly survey of employers, augmented by something called the “birth-death model,” which factors in jobs assumed to have been created by employers who are too new to have been included in the survey, and subtracts jobs from employers assumed to have failed and therefore not responded to the latest survey.

Victoria Battista, an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said the bureau was looking at whether that model needed to be changed, as well as at other possible issues, such as changing response rates to the questionnaire sent out to employers each month.

The newest revision is called a “benchmark revision.” Such revisions are disclosed each October, and led to reductions in job totals in both 2007 and 2008. But the changes those years were tiny when compared with the changes this year.

For the 12 months through last March, the birth-death model added 717,000 jobs to what the bureau would have reported had it relied solely on its survey.

While the government uses the survey of employers to estimate the number of jobs, the benchmark revisions are based on reports from states on the number of employees for whom unemployment insurance premiums are paid. Those numbers take longer to be available, but are considered to be more reliable.

1.1 Million More Jobs Lost

Today’s jobs report was weak across the board: September payrolls fell by 263,000, the unemployment rate rose to 9.8%, the underemployment rate (U-6) rose to 17.0%, and average weekly hours fell to 33.0, tying the record low set in June.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also reported that payrolls declined by 13,000 more in July and August than it had previously estimated.

And if that weren’t enough, BLS also estimates the number of jobs back in March was actually 824,000 lower than previously reported (this is an estimate of the “benchmark revision” that BLS will make to the data early next year).

Putting these figures together, we find that the number of jobs has now declined by 1.1 million (263,000 + 13,000 + 824,000) more than we previously knew.

I have always found it frustrating that the BLS reports an estimate of the benchmark revision each October, but doesn’t incorporate that revision until the following February. That means that many analysts will be using incorrect data over the next few months.

If you want to know the number of jobs lost during the recession, for example, you might think you could get that number by clicking over to the BLS and comparing the number of jobs in September 2009 to the number of jobs in December 2007. That comparison would show total job losses of 7.2 million. Based on today’s estimate of the benchmark revision, however, it’s likely that the actual figure is more than 8.0 million.

Update: The original post had a typo for the average weekly hours; as noted above, the correct figure is 33.0, not 30.0.

Still Broad Weakness in Q2 GDP

Earlier today, the Bureau of Economic Analysis released updated GDP figures, estimating that the economy contracted at a 0.7% pace in the second quarter. The BEA’s well-named “third estimate” thus indicated that the decline in the second quarter was somewhat slower than the 1.0% BEA had previously estimated.

As I mentioned a couple of months ago, whenever the GDP data come out, the first thing I look at is Table 2, which shows how much different sectors of the economy contributed to the growth (or, in this case, the decline). Even with the small upward revision, the most striking thing about Q2 continues to be how broad the weakness was:

Broad Weakness in Q2 GDP (Third)

As the chart shows, Q2 witnessed declines in every major category of private demand: consumer spending, residential investment, business investment in equipment and software (E&S), business investment in structures, and exports. Wow.  To find the last time that happened, you have to go all the way back to … the fourth quarter of last year, when it was even more severe. But before that, you have to go back five decades to the sharp downturn of the late 1950s.

Not surprisingly, government spending helped offset the declines in private spending. Most of the boost came from defense spending (a contribution of 0.7 percentage points), but state and local investment also helped (adding 0.48 percentage points, presumably at least in part due to stimulus spending).

A sharp decline in imports, finally, was the biggest contributor to growth in Q2, at least in an accounting sense. As I’ve noted before, it’s important to choose your words carefully here, since declining imports are clearly not the path to prosperity. In a GDP accounting sense, however, import declines do boost measured growth. Why? Well consider the fall in consumer spending. That decline affected both domestic production and imports. GDP measures domestic production, so we need a way to net out the decline in consumer spending that was attributable to imports. That’s one of the factors being captured in the imports figure.

Note: If the idea of contributions to GDP growth is new to you, here’s a quick primer on how to understand these figures. Consumer spending makes up about 70% of the economy. Consumer spending fell at a 0.9% pace in the second quarter. Putting those figures together, we say that consumer spending contributed about -0.6 percentage points (70% x -0.9%, allowing for some rounding) to second quarter growth.

How Much Did Cash-for-Clunkers Boost Auto Sales?

The busy folks at the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) released a quartet of studies today, covering the economic impacts of:

I suspect that other bloggers (not to mention the regular media) will have lots to say on the stimulus analyses, so I started my reading with the clunkers piece, which I found quite interesting.

News accounts often describe the program as a success because almost 700,000 people participated in it in just a few weeks. But, as CEA emphasizes in their new study, the fact that someone participated in the program does not necessarily mean that they bought a car because of it. Indeed, CEA estimates that the 690,000 auto sales under the program boosted 2009 auto sales by only 330,000:


What about the other 360,000?

Continue reading “How Much Did Cash-for-Clunkers Boost Auto Sales?”

Unemployment Still Rising

Today’s jobs report didn’t deliver any real surprises. The number of payroll jobs fell by 216,000 in August, slightly less than expectations, but revisions to earlier months subtracted an additional 49,000 jobs. The unemployment rate rose to 9.7%, more than expected and consistent with the consensus view that unemployment will exceed 10% in coming months.

In short, we are still losing jobs, but at a much slower pace than earlier in the year.

Looking further into the details, there are two things I’d highlight. First, the U-6 measure of unemployment, which includes workers who are discouraged or working part-time for economic reasons, increased even more than the regular unemployment rate, rising from 16.3% to 16.8%:

Unemployment August 2009

Second, unemployment among teenagers in August was the highest ever recorded. More than 25% of teenage workers were unemployed in August, topping the previous peak of 24.1% set in late 1982:

Teen Unemployment August 2009

Teenage unemployment jumped sharply from July to August, rising from 23.8% to 25.5%, an increase of 1.7 percentage points. In comparison, unemployment among adult men increased by “only” 0.3 percentage points and among adult women by 0.1 percentage point.

I predict that the econo-blogosphere will feature some healthy debate about whether the sharp increase among teenagers has anything to do with the most recent increase in the minimum wage that went into effect toward the end of July (and, therefore, after the July unemployment data were collected). As you would expect, teenagers are more likely to earn the minimum wage than are adult workers. If the latest minimum wage increase had immediate, negative effects on employment, you might therefore expect to see it among teenagers.

On the other hand, the chart shows that teenage unemployment can be quite volatile from month to month; as a result, analysts should be humble about what they can infer from the changes observed during a single month. Moreover, teenage unemployment has been rising rapidly throughout the downturn, which may reflect the intensity of the economic weakness rather than a series of increases in the minimum wage.

My advice: Before accepting or rejecting the idea that the recent minimum wage hike has hurt teen employment, wait to see whether any enterprising economists come up with compelling data that go beyond the month-to-month pattern. For example, it would be interesting to see comparisons among states. Some states had minimum wages above the federal level, and thus were unaffected by the recent increase.