Response to Rasmus

Here’s my response to Jack Rasmus’ complaint about my fact-checking him (“GDP revisions: not a conspiracy, Jack”). His words are in purple italics; mine, in normal type.

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%.

GDP wasn’t revised up by almost 33%—it was more like a tenth that. Rasmus means that the growth rate was revised up by 33% (no almost about it). It’s a minor error, but telling, and one he repeats several times.

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.

Economic stats frequently depart from consensus projections. In fact, trying to beat consensus estimates and bet you’re right and the market is wrong is a major pastime on Wall Street. Also, there were no “revisions” involved. This was the first estimate for the second quarter, so there’s nothing to revise. Rasmus may mean that the changes to the definition of GDP were responsible for the above-consensus result, but if you strip out the gain in the new IP product sector, the major conceptual change, the growth rate would have been roughly 1.6%, all of 0.1 point below the actual number.

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.

He liked this argument so much he had to repeat it, but there were  no “revisions” in any direction to 2nd quarter GDP, since this is the first we’ve heard of it. The first estimate will be revised next month, and we’ll see if it’s up or down.

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.

Is Rasmus calling me an Obama apologist? That’s funny.

Some among them claim I am arguing there is a ‘conspiracy’ to falsely boost GDP by the Obama administration.

Saying they “manipulate” and “rewrit[e] the numbers to make failure go away” sounds pretty close to a conspiracy (from the thesaurus: “plot, scheme, plan, machination, ploy, trick, ruse, subterfuge”) to me.

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.

Actually they probably are completely unrelated. Also, what Obama proposes often has a hard time getting through Congress, and while R&D tax credits probably aren’t massively effective, they probably do raise research spending some (see “Do Tax Credits Stimulate R&D Spending?”). And that spending includes buying equipment and hiring scientists, which is economically stimulative—and if the research has any payoff, might lead to some actual innovations, which could be additionally stimulative. But elections and the prestige of American capitalism won’t turn on the results. Most people will hardly notice.

Nevertheless, my critics—some New York left liberal types in particular—insist on defending the BEA and the administration.

Busted. We plotted this response out yesterday afternoon over cronuts and pour-over coffee at an undisclosed location in Brooklyn.

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.

The revisions do nothing to change the picture of the 2009–2010 recession as the worst in modern history, nor does it change the current recovery’s status as the weakest.

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.

“Of course”? Your original piece didn’t read as if you knew this. And the “directly” is superfluous.

The differences between GDI and GDP are a favorite topic of data connoisseurs. Fed economist Jeremy Nalewaik has written several papers arguing, among other things, that GDI may be more accurate, especially at business cycle turning points, than GDP. (Here’s a ‎paper [PDF] and here’s an interview.)

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.

Raising investment raises profits? Really? Not all investments are profitable, and sometimes profits can be raised, at least in the short term, by stinting on investment. There’s quite a bit of that going on right now, in fact. And Rasmus is slipping capital gains back into the national income accountants’ definition of income, which is wrong.

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’.

Sometimes GDP runs ahead of GDI, and sometimes GDI runs ahead of GDP. GDI grew more quickly than GDP in 2006, but GDI lagged GDP in 2007—which is often what happens before a recession, and Nalewaik has shown. GDP ran ahead of GDI for much of 2012, as well, a portent of the recent slowdown.

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.

They are skilled and honest public servants. I’m guessing Rasmus never actually spoke with one.

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.

This “record upward revision” has done almost nothing to change the growth numbers over the long term, and the changes to recent figures are relatively minor.

Perhaps the ‘expenses’ incurred in derivatives investing by multinational corporations will soon be considered ‘investment’ in the next round of BEA revisions.

Financial transactions of this sort are excluded from the national income and product accounts by definition; they cover only production and incomes earned in production. Stock trading, derivatives slinging, and foreign exchange transactions have nothing to do with GDP.

Also, if the Obama administration was looking for a political payoff with this redefinition, wouldn’t it have been better to do it a year ago, before the 2012 election, rather than after?

There are a lot of criticisms that can be made of conventional economic and social statistics, but you should actually know what you’re talking about before undertaking the project.

2 Comments on “Response to Rasmus

  1. The following is my subsequent (and final) reply to Doug Henwood’s criticism of my perspective on the recent BEA GDP data revisions. I submit, what our differences come down to, in part, is that he is more trusting of government data reporting than I, and less willing to question the assumptions, definitions, and methods of government data collection and reporting. My replies to his responses are in capital letters. Jack Rasmus

  2. Lol pathetic. The last refuge of a defeated argument is wrapping yourself up in whatever cliche is popular with the broader society. “Anti-government” sentiment is a popular paranoia in American ideology so of course if you over-simply your disagreement and make it sound “Anti-government” you’ll look like you’re taking the higher road. Disgusting.

    I “trust” the government statisticians to the extent that they hold themselves out as doing real world science. They don’t claim to know more than they know, it’s just that uninformed idiots who never passed their college statistics course don’t understand they ways in which their claims are limited.

    And in the end you’re still wrong: Doug Henwood is actually a much more thorough critic of “assumptions, definitions, and methods of government data collection and reporting” than you are! That’s the difference between a Marxist and a populist: actual analysis of the real world based on commonly accepted facts.

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