How zombies are finally boosting America's GDP

Changes to the formula being rolled out by the Bureau of Economic Analysis will see the costs of long-lived movies and TV shows added to the nation's output data.

By The Fiscal Times Jul 31, 2013 1:08PM
copyright Stockbyte, SuperStockBy Yuval RosenbergThe Fiscal Times logo

With the release of Wednesday's GDP data, the U.S. economy suddenly will get about 3% bigger.
It's not that the economy experienced a sudden and unexpected growth spurt -- the advance estimate of growth for the second quarter is expected to show fairly weak growth below 1%. Yet comprehensive changes to the national income and product accounts being rolled out Wednesday by the Bureau of Economic Analysis are expected to result in a gross domestic product that's about $500 billion bigger than it was using previous methods of measurement. "That's akin to tacking on another New Jersey, Ohio or Virginia to the nation's broadest measure of output," economists at Credit Suisse noted recently.

Does this mean the economy is stronger?
Not necessarily. The comprehensive revisions being made are essentially accounting changes that will increase the measured size of our economy but may not significantly change the speed at which it's growing or shrinking. "The GDP will be larger in a statistical sense, but not any healthier," Credit Suisse's economists wrote.

The updated methodology will be used to rewrite GDP history all the way back to when it was first calculated in 1929, but the most significant effects will be seen in the data for recent years. Some economists do expect the new numbers will make the economy look better. The revision is likely to show that the recession was deeper and the recovery stronger than current numbers suggest, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch economist Michelle Meyer. "It will also show the economy fared better over the past year than was initially reported, implying greater momentum heading into this year," Meyer wrote in a research note this month. The new data could also show a wealthier household sector with a higher savings rate, Meyer suggested.

Are these comprehensive revisions unusual?
These types of sweeping updates happen every four or five years, with the last time being in July 2009. Overall, this is the 14th benchmark revision of the national accounts data. The Bureau of Economic Analysis also makes annual revisions every July to incorporate newer and more complete data. But the revisions made every four or five years are more sweeping -- they include some broader conceptual changes meant to reflect the evolving economy and to make U.S. data better conform to the international System of National Accounts.

They also include statistical updates, such as what the BEA describes as improved measures of banking services. The conceptual changes being made this time are the most significant since 1999, when software was reclassified as an investment rather than an expense.

What changes are being made to GDP this time?
The key changes have to do with intellectual property and the costs of innovation by businesses, though the revisions being incorporated for the first time Wednesday also include changes to the accounting for defined-benefit pension plans, among other things.

"The biggest change is treating R&D spending as a form of investment, just like buying equipment," Brian Wesbury, chief economist at First Trust, wrote in a note to clients this week. "The theory is that it expands the stock of knowledge, which is then used to discover or develop new products. A similar change is being made for art that lasts more than a year, like movies, books or hit TV shows." The BEA projected that the R&D change would add $314 billion, or 2.2%, to 2007 GDP, the latest year for which the government provided such estimates. The new treatment movies, TV shows, books, music and other original entertainment would boost 2007 GDP by $70 billion, or about 0.5% of GDP.

Why are these changes being made?
It's an attempt to make the national income and product accounts better reflect our economy, including the growing importance of "intangible assets" and intellectual property. "It's bringing GDP into the 21st century really," says Jay Feldman, an economist at Credit Suisse. The changes reflect international best practices, with countries such as Australia and Canada already measuring such "intellectual capital" while European countries are in the process of adding it to their tabulations.
As an added benefit, the accounting change brings the government data more in line with how the market sees such intangible assets, JPMorgan economists Michael Feroli and Daniel Silver wrote in a research report last week: "Technology, pharmaceutical and media companies are regularly valued well in excess of their tangible assets, presumably a reflection of the fact their intangible assets have value that endures through time."

Of course, the national income and output data still isn't perfect. “One day, they’ll include homemaking, which counts when we hire someone, but not when we do it ourselves!” Wesbury and his colleagues noted.

So homemaking doesn't count but "The Real Housewives" shows do?
Well, not quite. A footnote in the BEAs March 2013 preview of the revisions explains that not all TV programs will get the new accounting treatment. "Long-lived television programs include situation comedies and drama programs," the BEA explained in a footnote. So the zombies of AMC's "The Walking Dead" and the vampires of HBO's "True Blood" will now be counted as investments and add to GDP. "Other types of television programs, including news programs, sporting events, game shows, soap operas, and reality programming have much shorter service lives and will not be capitalized," the BEA said. Sorry, Kim Kardashian, you'll have to look for other ways to contribute to the economy.

Wait, so GDP just got 3% bigger. Is there politics at play here?
No, so ignore any moaning you might hear -- at least insofar as it pertains specifically to these benchmark revisions. "The changes have been considered for many years," the First Trust economists write, "and just as easily could have been made under a President Romney…except then it would be different people claiming conspiracy."

Yuval Rosenberg is the Business+Economy Editor at The Fiscal Times. Subscribe to The Fiscal Times' FREE newsletter.

More from The Fiscal Times
Jul 31, 2013 2:11PM

In a few years, most people will forget that the formula was radically changed on July 31, 2013.  Just as the old Gross National Product, that which emphasizes productivity, is largely forgotten, Americans will treat the new Gross Domestic Product formula as though it is the only way that economic growth has ever been calculated.


I hope readers understand that this is ALL ABOUT POLITICS, contrary to what Yuval Rosenberg wrote.  And yes, both Republicans and Democrats are guilty of manipulating government statistics.  In fact, the country is being run on a FOUNDATION OF LIES. 


The economy has likely been CONTRACTING for several years.  GDP includes all government spending, no matter how the money is spent.  This enables the Commerce Dept to report growth month after month.


The inflation adjustment (Consumer Price Index) is reverse-engineered to report low inflation rate, so the inflation adjusted GDP is way too high.  This is why we're likely still contracting.


All those bailout programs, first the big banks, then GM & Chrysler, counted as GDP growth!  There is no new bailout program this year, so federal spending will go down.  In order to keep GDP from falling, they need a new formula to jack up the numbers.


Just remember that most new jobs are PART-TIME, LOW-PAYING jobs.  These were meant for kids starting to work out of high school (or while they're still in high school).  Instead, people old enough to be parents of teenagers are working 2 or 3 part time jobs in place of good-paying full-time jobs that they no longer have.


Do not forget that July 31, 2013 was a day in which the federal government unveiled a NEW WAY TO MANIPULATE US, the revised GDP!

Jul 31, 2013 1:55PM
The accounting change should only account for .3 GDP.  The real number is 1.4% and that is likely to be revised downward to sub 1%.  Everyone knows that the business conditions worsened in the 2nd quarter.  The Obama press can tout this all they want.  If "back to school" is not absolutely stellar, I would look for 3rd quarter to be negative.  Do you want to place your bets?
Jul 31, 2013 1:57PM
Total non-sense and distortion on how to measure Real nominal GDP through distortion and deceit. The system is so broken, fraudulent and corrupt it's disgusting.



They could not get us out of another recession except by faking the numbers.


Are they going to add the kick that the invention of fire and the wheel did to our GDP


if so our GDP should go over 150,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 trillion dollars a year. Debt of $18 trillion problem solved.



Jul 31, 2013 3:02PM
This entire excercise has become a lowly unsophisticated confidence game.  The bumblecrats think as long as the market is screaming their jobs are safe.  So we now see fiat facts and statistics to bolster the fiat money for the fiat economy for the fiat American who will soon be eating fiat food and be living in a fiat mansion.  And all will be fiat happy!
Jul 31, 2013 3:48PM

Seriously doubt that any of the comments are the changes in Analysis of GDP are coming from those with any formal education in Economics, - be it a PHD, Masters or even a BA!  However, some of them mi9ght have had a Introductory course in Econ such as Econ 101 which only slightly introduces someone to Micro Economics with nothing relative to Macro Economics.  Those commenting most likely could not even explain M1 or M2!

Same group of complainers would most likely consider it was a conspiracy when the former GNP became the GDP! (CONSPIRACIES EVERYWHERE)!

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