Washington, DC (Thursday, March 25, 2021): On March 25, 2021, the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) released data for the fourth quarter 2020 gross output (GO) – the most comprehensive measure of total spending in the economy, including the supply chain. The data revealed that GO advanced significantly faster than GDP in the last period of 2020, a good sign that strong economic growth will continue into 2021.
While fourth-quarter GDP expanded 6.1% in nominal terms, GO surged 10.6% in comparable terms. Similarly, GO growth of 6.6% in real terms exceeded the real-term GDP growth of 4.3%. Furthermore, on an annualized basis, fourth-quarter GO and GDP exceeded their values from before the 2020 pullback and have risen near their respective highest levels ever – lagging slightly only behind Q3 2019 results in nominal terms.
After a minor dip in the first quarter 2020 and the sharp decline in the second quarter, the economy rallied back in the third quarter to recover most of the second-quarter losses. That growth trend continued in the fourth quarter 2020 at growth rates that exceed recent averages by a significant margin.
Many economists feared that the sharp economic decline in the second quarter would have negative effects on long-term economic growth. To the extent that major sectors of the economy are still struggling (entertainment, sports, cruise ships, etc.), the US economy is still underperforming and is in many ways, a “K”-shaped recovery rather than a “V”-shaped recovery.
The report released today is based on fourth-quarter 2020 data, when we still did not have complete information on the implementation of Operation Warp Speed – whether vaccines will be effective or how soon we would have enough doses to vaccinate the population to the point of herd immunity. However, with more than one-third of the adult population already vaccinated, easing of government business restrictions and more states going back to business as usual will provide further support necessary to maintain the current economic growth trend.
A positive outlook can also be seen in the relationship between the GO and GDP decline during 2020. Earlier stages of production are generally more sensitive and more volatile in their response to economic disruptions. Therefore, during past recessions, GO commonly declined significantly more than GDP, which captures only final outputs in the economy. For instance, GO declined more than 26% during the last quarter 2008. In the same period, GDP pulled back less than 8%.
But the 2020 economic slowdown broke from this pattern and saw GO decline at similar rates as the GDP. This anomaly from the established historical pattern, provides another indication that the underlying business fundamentals are significantly stronger than originally anticipated, that government shutdowns in response to the COVID-19 epidemic might have been unnecessary and that those responses might have even amplified the initial economic contraction in the second-quarter 2020.
More importantly, as it did during the third quarter, business spending continued to outpace consumer spending in the last quarter 2020.
Business – Not Consumers – Drives the Economy
Contrary to views of many academic economists and wide-spread media reports, consumer spending does not drive the economy, and does not represent two-thirds of the economy. Using GO as a better and a more accurate measure of total spending in the economy, the business sector (B2B spending) is almost twice the size of consumer spending. Consumer spending is the effect, not the cause, of prosperity (Say’s law).
Therefore, our business-to-business (B2B) index is very useful for gauging the economy’s underlying health and the readiness to rebound after economic downturns. The B2B Index measures all the business spending in the supply chain and new private capital investment. In the fourth quarter, nominal B2B activity expanded more than 14% to $26.6 trillion. At the same time, consumer spending grew less than 4% on an annualized basis to $14.5 trillion. In real terms, B2B activity expanded at an annualized rate of 12% to $23.25 trillion and consumer spending remained flat at the same level as in the previous period of $13 trillion.
“B2B spending is in fact a pretty good indicator of where the economy is headed, since it measures spending in the entire supply chain,” stated Skousen. “After declining 5.4% and 44% in the first and second quarters, respectively, business activity expanded at an annualized rate of 39% and 12% in real terms in last two quarters of last year.”
GO Continues to Grow Faster than GDP in Fourth Quarter to Suggest Strong Economic Recovery at least in the First Half of 2021
Despite significant declines in the first two quarters of 2020, Gross Output indicates robust long-term growth. Prior to what appears to be merely a short-term pullback, GO delivered steady quarterly growth over the previous 42 consecutive periods. Gross Output growth slowed in late 2019, which could have been an early sign of economic slowdown even before the pandemic and government shutdowns in early 2020.
However, GO’s renewed growth in the third and fourth quarter 2020 could set the tone for the overall direction of the economy for the entire 2021 and beyond. Gross Output is a leading indicator of what GDP will do in the next quarter and beyond. As David Ranson, chief economist for the private forecasting firm HCWE & Co., states, “Movements in gross output serve as a leading indicator of movements in GDP.”
The federal government will release the advance estimate for first-quarter 2021 GDP on April 29, 2021 and the full release of Gross Output, as well as the third estimate of GDP on June 24, 2021.
Important Note: We are hopeful that in the near future, the BEA will release GO at the same time as the first estimate of GDP for the quarter, not the third estimate.
Report on Various Sectors of the Economy
After two periods of contraction and a robust rebound in the third quarter, all but a few of the individual economic sectors continue to expand.
After declining in the previous three quarters, the mining sector expanded nearly 10% in real terms during the fourth-quarter 2020. The Oil and gas extraction sub-segment, which accounts for more than 60% of the overall mining sector, expanded 5.3% in the previous quarter. While exhibiting significant growth, the mining sector’s share of only 1.7% of the economy contributes very little to the overall GO. However, since mining represents the earliest stages of production, we watch its expansion and contraction as an early indicator of what other sectors further down the supply chain might do in subsequent periods.
The Agriculture sector expanded slower in the last quarter than in the third quarter 2020, but still grew 3.3% on an annualized basis. Furthermore, Manufacturing grew 5.7% after spiking more than 40% in the previous period. The two manufacturing sub-segments with highest growth in the most recent periods were Computer and electronic products with 18% and the Fabricated metal products sub-segment with a 16.2% expansion.
More importantly Manufacturing of durable goods expanded at 10% versus the growth of only 1% for Nondurable goods. All these results suggest that, while short-term consumer spending is still lagging, businesses and consumers are confident about the long-term outlook for the economy.
The largest segment of the economy, Finance, insurance, real estate, rental, and leasing, which accounts for one-fifth of GO, grew nearly 5%. The finance and insurance sub-segment expanded 7.6% and the Real estate rental and leasing sub-segment contributed to the growth with an annualized expansion of nearly 3% in the fourth quarter.
The Construction sector delivered a strong growth of nearly 12% – its highest expansion rate last year. However, the Transportation and warehousing sector advanced even faster at 17.4% in real terms. Except for the Pipeline transportation sub-segment, which contracted 8.2%, most other transportation sub-sectors expanded at double-digit percentages. The Transit and ground passenger transportation sub-segment nearly doubled compared to the third quarter, Air transportation grew more than 60%, Rail transportation increased 27.4%, Water transportation volume improved 23% and trucking expanded 5.2%.
Government spending was a mixed bag of results. Federal spending fell 1.2%, but government spending at the state and local level rose 0.5%. While the federal government’s decline rate is higher, State and local government spending accounts for two thirds of total government spending. Therefore, State and local government spending increase erased all spending reductions at the federal level. On the upside, the offset was almost exact and total government spending was flat compared to the previous period.
Gross output (GO) and GDP are complementary statistics in national income accounting. GO is an attempt to measure the “make” economy; i.e., total economic activity at all stages of production, similar to the “top line” (revenues/sales) of a financial accounting statement. In April 2014, the BEA began to measure GO on a quarterly basis along with GDP.
Gross domestic product (GDP) is an attempt to measure the “use” economy, i.e., the value of finished goods and services ready to be used by consumers, business and government. GDP is not quite the same as the “bottom line” (profit, or net income) of an accounting statement, but rather the “value added” or the value of final use.
GO tends to be more sensitive to the business cycle, and more volatile, than GDP.
About GO and B2B Index
Skousen champions Gross Output as a more comprehensive measure of economic activity. “GDP leaves out the supply chain and business to business transactions in the production of intermediate inputs,” he notes. “That’s a big part of the economy, bigger than GDP itself. GO includes B2B activity that is vital to the production process. No one should ignore what is going on in the supply chain of the economy.”
Skousen first introduced Gross Output as a macroeconomic tool in his work The Structure of Production (New York University Press, 1990). A new third edition was published in late 2015, and is now available on Amazon.
Click here: Structure of Production on Amazon
The BEA’s decision in 2014 to publish GO on a quarterly basis in its “GDP by Industry” data is a major achievement in national income accounting. GO is the first output statistic to be published on a quarterly basis since GDP was invented in the 1940s.
The BEA now defines GDP in terms of GO. GDP is defined as “the value of the goods and services produced by the nation’s economy [GO] less the value of the goods and services used up in production (Intermediate Inputs or II].” See definitions at https://www.bea.gov/newsreleases/industry/gdpindustry/gdpindnewsrelease.htm
With GO and GDP being produced on a timely basis, the federal government now offers a complete system of accounts. As Dale Jorgenson, Steve Landefeld, and William Nordhaus conclude in their book, A New Architecture for the U. S. National Accounts, “Gross output [GO] is the natural measure of the production sector, while net output [GDP] is appropriate as a measure of welfare. Both are required in a complete system of accounts.”
Skousen adds, “Gross Output and GDP are complementary aspects of the economy, but GO does a better job of measuring total economic activity and the business cycle, and demonstrates that business spending is more significant than consumer spending,” he says. “By using GO data, we see that consumer spending is actually only about a third of economic activity, not two-thirds that is often reported by the media. As the chart above demonstrates, business spending is in fact almost twice the size of consumer spending in the US economy.”
For More Information
Steve Forbes: What’s Ahead podcast. In this podcast, Steve Forbes discusses Gross Output with Mark Skousen on September 9, 2019: https://www.forbes.com/sites/steveforbes/2019/09/09/were-using-the-wrong-measure-gdp-to-gauge-the-economys-real-health-mark-skousen/#35ff3d9a52fa
GO-Day podcast discussion panel hosted Mark Skousen that included Steve Forbes, Sean Flynn, Steve Hanke, and David Ranson, September 30, 2020: https://chapman.zoom.us/rec/share/KJ17YjuR_6zthmgOA5fNprv2e65F-jICOsf430bJvnu8qWzdPYPfTohPC48qRLe9.Q8rmnlXynnTN74Tv?startTime=1601488807000
The GO data released by the BEA can be found at www.bea.gov under “Quarterly GDP by Industry.” Click on interactive tables “GDP by Industry” and go to “Gross Output by Industry.” Or go to this link directly: http://www.bea.gov/iTable/iTable.cfm?ReqID=51&step=1#reqid=51&step=3&isuri=1&5102=15
For more information on Gross Output (GO), the Skousen B2B Index, and their relationship to GDP, see the following:
Mark Skousen, “If GDP Lags, Watch the Economy Grow,” Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2018: https://www.grossoutput.com/2018/04/26/away-go-economy-growing-faster-expected/
Mark Skousen, “At Last, a Better Way to Economic Measure” lead editorial, Wall Street Journal, April 23, 2014: http://on.wsj.com/PsdoLM
Steve Forbes, Forbes Magazine (April 14, 2014): “New, Revolutionary Way To Measure The Economy Is Coming — Believe Me, This Is A Big Deal”: http://www.forbes.com/sites/steveforbes/2014/03/26/this-may-save-the-economoy-from-keynesians-and-spend-happy-pols/
Mark Skousen, Forbes Magazine (December 16, 2013): “Beyond GDP: Get Ready For A New Way To Measure The Economy”: http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2013/11/29/beyond-gdp-get-ready-for-a-new-way-to-measure-the-economy/
Steve Hanke, Globe Asia (July 2014): “GO: J. M. Keynes Versus J.-B. Say,” http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/go-jm-keynes-versus-j-b-say
David Ranson, “Output growth data that the economy generates months earlier than GDP,” Economy Watch, July 24, 2017. HCWE & Co. http://www.hcwe.com/guest/EW-0717.pdf
Mark Skousen, “Linking Austrian Economics to Keynesian Economics,” Journal of Private Enterprise, Winter, 2015: http://journal.apee.org/index.php?title=Parte7_Journal_of_Private_Enterprise_vol_30_no_4.pdf
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