Thursday, April 8, 2010

Demote GDP and Enhance Economic Well-Being

The most frequently used measure of economic well-being is Gross Domestic Product. Government and private sector leaders, economists, commentators and polemicists fixate over GDP. Its upward movements prompt celebrations and congratulations (usually, self-congratulations). Its downward movements provoke calls for resignation, electoral ouster, and tea parties, and fuel no end of tiresome cable TV commentary. Whether the country is in an economic downturn or upturn is defined by movements in GDP.

Whenever a numerical figure is used as an important benchmark, it can become a tail that wags the dog. A well-known example is corporate earnings per share. Public companies scheme and maneuver to make earnings per share large enough to cast management in a good light and boost the company's stock price. While there are legal ways to "manage" earnings per share, financial regulators' rap sheets are replete with public companies that lied and cheated in order to doll up their financial statements. Earnings per share as a benchmark drives behavior. It is a narrow, incomplete way of measuring a company's value, which diverts management's attention toward the next quarter and away from long term planning and investment.

The use of GDP to measure economic well-being may distort government behavior. GDP, as it's usually calculated, measures the amount of a nation's consumption and investment. It includes private consumption (ham, eggs, shoes, DVDs, cars, kiddie train sets, etc.), gross investment (basically, business investment plus new home sales), government spending (which doesn't include transfer payments like Social Security and unemployment compensation, but these tend to get picked up through private consumption), and net exports (gross exports minus gross imports, which can yield a negative number). Most of GDP consists of consumption (private consumption and most government spending, reduced by net exports (read, net imports)). Business investment, new home sales, and government investment account for a relatively small portion of GDP.

GDP does not differentiate between consumption financed with debt, as opposed to consumption paid for with earnings or savings. Thus, consumers indulging in home equity loans or cash out mortgage refinancings boost GDP by the full extent of the dollars they borrow and spend. The same is true when a government borrows money to pay for its spending. Thus, the government is incentivized to borrow and spend in order to boost GDP, as opposed to raising taxes to cover its budget (which would reduce private spending and perhaps business investment, thereby diminishing GDP). The government is similarly rewarded when it cuts taxes (providing more money for private consumption and business investment), and substitutes borrowed money to cover its budget. Either way, government borrowing can boost GDP and make the government look good.

Government subsidies of private borrowing, such as home mortgage and home equity loans, can also enhance GDP, because GDP is not adjusted for private consumption fueled by debt. If government policy inflates home prices, which in turn encourage more tax code subsidized borrowing to finance consumption, the larger GDP becomes and the better the government looks.

A major shortcoming of GDP is that it doesn't reflect the worst aspects of the current financially driven economic crisis. Instability and volatility in the stock and real estate markets have shaken the middle and upper middle classes. Increased unemployment levels don't show up in GDP. Wage and salary cuts, reductions in working hours, and other earnings losses aren't recorded in GDP. The hundreds of billions of dollars of interest income lost by savers, who can get barely a pittance for their hard earned savings, is not an input for GDP. Even the loss of home equity loans and generous credit card lines of credit, so important to fueling the boom of the early 2000s, doesn't enter into the calculation of GDP. All of these factors may be reflected indirectly in lower consumption and reduced business investment. But those statistical effects don't begin to reflect the insecurity gripping tens of millions of Americans. Government pronouncements and Wall Street boosterism that tout GDP growth clash with the daily experiences of typical Americans. A recovering GDP uplifts the stock market, disproportionately benefiting the wealthy and well-to-do. But this uneven impact fuels Tea Parties and other harbingers of discontent.

A number of readily available statistics can be used to create a more complete picture of economic well-being. Unemployment levels, median household income, per capita income, distribution of income, trends in asset values, volatility in asset values, savings rates, debt growth or reduction, business investment, and changes in worker productivity all help to round out the picture. There is no single measure of economic well-being that really works. We have to look at a basket of statistics to get the full picture. And getting the full picture would lead to more well-rounded government policies. GDP is a valid measure of an economy's size. But using it as the principal benchmark for the government's performance can distort government policy by encouraging borrowing, while reminding numerous Americans that they remain outside the Beltway.

Homeowners didn't become wealthier by embracing home equity loans and cash out mortgage refinancings. They simply frontloaded their consumption. Now, later in life, they are having to pay for their unwillingness to delay gratification. Borrowing to finance government spending is largely the same (with the exception of government investment in highways, bridges and other infrastructure, which may enhance future economic growth). A better balanced approach to measuring economic well-being would reduce the political reward to the government from borrowing to finance deficits.

The Euro zone sovereign debt crisis illustrates the dangers of outsized government borrowing. Greece's economy is about 0.6% of the world economy. But bailing it out has proven to be intractable. Imagine what could happen if a much larger economy overspent.

No comments: