Mark Cliffe

GDP – a Digital Remix



In a recent article for Project Syndicate, I argue that more than a decade after the global financial crisis, macroeconomists have failed to absorb three crucial sets of lessons. The models that most are using are still struggling to cope with disruptive change, and with the fact that both balance sheets and inequality matter.

Moreover, the key target of economic policy, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), doesn’t provide much help. So with a view to ‘remastering’ macroeconomics, in a new ING report, produced with the help of John Calverley, Carlo Cocuzzo and I investigate how GDP could be remixed. We pay particular attention to the impact of the rapid digitalisation of the economy that has been gathering momentum over the past 25 years. Pursuing the music analogy, our focus is on a digital remix of GDP.

The key conclusions, on conservative assumptions, are that:

  1. Official data understates US real GDP growth by 0.75% per annum, and overstates inflation by 0.4% due to inadequate measurement of the digital economy and the exclusion of investment in certain intangibles.

2. The under-measurement of the digital sector may be about 0.5% of GDP annually, which arises because of rapid price declines, the plethora of new goods and services and the extent of free goods. The improvement in quality is significantly under-measured so that output is understated and inflation overstated. Mis-measurement of the digital sector may go back 30 years or more but is likely an increasing problem as it becomes more pervasive in the economy.

*Note: hypothetical illustration

3. Correctly accounting for all intangibles by including them as investment could add 0.25% to GDP annually. Intangibles still left out by US statisticians include investment in brands, some types of intellectual capital, training, and the value of firms’ organisation and structure.

4. The under-measurement of GDP is probably even greater than the 0.75% p.a. we claim, perhaps 1% annually or even as much as 2% because of the growing importance of services in general, where the calculation of quality improvements is much harder than for manufacturing.

5. US trend growth has slowed by about 1.1% p.a. since 2004, according to official figures. Not all of the slowdown can be explained by mis-measurement in the digital sector and intangibles, because some of the mis-measurement we find occurred prior to 2004. Nevertheless, we suggest that perhaps as much as half of this slowdown may be explained in this way.

Why it matters

Official statistics suggest that productivity and trend GDP growth have slowed in the last decade and we are told that median living standards are little higher than 10 years ago in many advanced countries or even 20 or 30 years ago in the US. Our Digital Remix casts doubt on these assumptions, arguing that the data is overly pessimistic.

That said, the report cautions that there are other shortcomings in GDP as a measure of prosperity, such as failing to reflect non-market activities or environmental degradation, that may be less benign. But it is clear that the digital era has exposed, more than ever, the limits of GDP as a measure of welfare. And if ‘you manage what you measure’, as the old adage suggests, these GDP flaws raise troubling questions about government policy and economic decisions, which are liable to be distorted as a result.

Read the report in full here.