Real gross domestic product (GDP) during the fourth quarter (October through December) of 2003 increased at an annual rate of 4.0 percent. Real GDP increased at an annual rate of 4.3 percent during the entire year of 2003 as compared to an increase of 2.8 percent during 2002.

Meaning of the Announcement

The U.S. economy experienced a recession in 2001 and experienced only modest growth in real GDP since. However, growth throughout 2003 has shown improvement, particularly in the last half of the year. Employment has fallen and unemployment has increased for much of the time since the recession ended in November of 2001. The current announcement along with improving employment reports is good news.

Real GDP for the entire year of 2003 was 3.1 percent higher than 2002. Real GDP in 2002 was 2.2 percent higher than 2001 and 2001 was only .5 higher than 2000. Real GDP is expected to increase at about 4 percent during 2004.

Definition of Gross Domestic Product

Gross domestic product (GDP) is one measure of economic activity, the total amount of goods and services produced in the United States in a year. It is calculated by adding together the market values of all of the final goods and services produced in a year.

  • It is a gross measurement because it includes the total amount of goods and services produced, some of which are simply replacing goods that have depreciated or have worn out.
  • It is domestic production because it includes only goods and services produced within the U.S.
  • It measures current production because it includes only what was produced during the year.
  • It is a measurement of the final goods produced because it does not include the value of a good when sold by a producer, again when sold by the distributor, and once more when sold by the retailer to the final customer. We count only the final sale.

Changes in GDP from one year to the next reflect changes in the output of goods and services and changes in their prices. To provide a better understanding of what actually is occurring in the economy, real GDP is also calculated. In fact, these changes are more meaningful, as the changes in real GDP show what has actually happened to the quantities of goods and services, independent of changes in prices.

Why are Changes in Real Gross Domestic Product Important?

The measurement of the production of goods and services produced each year permits us to evaluate our monetary and fiscal polices our investment and saving patterns, the quality of our technological advances, and our material well-being. Changes in real GDP per capita provide our best measures of changes in our material standards of living.

While inflation and unemployment rates and changes in our income distribution provide us additional measures of the successes and weaknesses in our economy, none is a more important indicator of our economy's health than the rate of change in real GDP.

Changes in real GDP are discussed in the press and on the nightly news after every monthly announcement of the latest quarter's data or revision. The current increase in real GDP is discussed in news reports as a sign that the economy is growing and may well continue to do so. (There also is considerable concern with lagging growth in employment. See the latest unemployment case.)

Real GDP trends are prominently included in discussions of potential slowdowns and economic booms. They are featured in many discussions of trends in stock prices. Economic commentators use decreases in real GDP as indicators of recessions. The most popular (although inaccurate) definition of a recession is at least two consecutive quarters of declining real GDP.

Data Trends

The growth in real GDP at the end of the 1990s has been relatively high when compared with the early part of the 1990s. However, during the last two quarters of 2000, the rate of growth of real gross domestic product slowed significantly. During the first three quarters of 2001, the rate of growth of real gross domestic product was actually negative as the U.S. economy entered a recession in March of 2001 lasting through November of 2001. (The change in real GDP was also negative (-.5 percent) in the third quarter of 2000.)

The Federal Reserve responded to slowing growth and the recession by reducing the target federal funds rate by 475 basis points (4.75%) from January 2001 to December 2001 and then two more times since. The most recent was in June of 2003. (See Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy Cases.) The effects of stimulative monetary policy and the resulting low interest rates, along with the stimulative federal government spending and taxing efforts, helped increase consumer spending during and since the recession.

The price index for GDP increased at an annual rate of 1.0 percent during the fourth quarter of 2003, compared to an increase of 1.6 percent during the third quarter of 2003. It increased at an annual rate of 1.6 percent for 2003, compared to 1.5 percent for 2002.

Trends in the 1990s

The rate of increase in real GDP was not only higher in the last part of the 1990s than in the first part of the 1990s, but also when compared to much of the 1970s and 1980s. Economic growth, as measured by average annual changes in real GDP, was 4.4 percent in the 1960s. Average rates of growth decreased during the 1970s (3.3%), the 1980s (3.0%), and the first half of the 1990s (2.3%). In the last five years of the 1990s, the rate of growth in real GDP increased to 3.9 percent, with the last three years of the 1990s being at or over 4.2 percent per year. (The average annual increase since, including the recession year of 1002, has been 2.4 percent.)

Figure 2: Quarterly Changes in Real GDP at Annual Rates (1990-2003)

The upward trend in economic growth over the past decade has been accompanied by increases in the rates of growth of consumption spending, investment spending, and exports. Productivity increases, expansions in the labor force, decreases in unemployment, and increases in the amount of capital have allowed real GDP to grow at the faster rates.

Details of the Fourth-Quarter Changes in Real GDP

Real GDP increased at an annual rate of 4.0 percent in the fourth quarter of 2003 compared to a rise of 8.2 percent in the third quarter of 2003. The major contributors to the increase in real GDP were the increase in consumption and investment spending. The rate of growth slowed from the very high, third-quarter increase of 8.2 percent due to slower growth in consumption and investment and a rise in imports.

Gross private domestic investment increased at an annual rate of 12.4 percent during the fourth quarter of 2003, compared to an increase of 14.8 percent in the third quarter of 2003. For all of 2003, investment spending increased by 4.1 percent.

Fourth quarter exports increased by 19.1 percent (compared to a decrease of 9.9 percent in the third quarter) and imports increased by 11.3 percent (compared to an increase of .8 percent in the third quarter).

Government spending rose at an annual rate of .8 percent compared to a 1.8 percent increase in the third quarter.

GDP, Productivity, and Unemployment

A major factor in the continued growth in the American economy, as seen in the last half of 2003 rate of growth in real GDP growth of 6.1 percent, is the continued improvement in productivity. Productivity, defined as the amount of output per hour of work, increased at an annual rate of 2.7% in the fourth quarter and 9.4% growth in the third quarter. Businesses are able to gain more output from the same number of workers, boosting economic results. This explains how the economy continues to grow strongly even as the unemployment rate stays high and employment grows only slowly.

The Federal Reserve has stated in its recent releases that continued productivity growth is a key component in the continued growth in the American economy. Businesses are able to keep costs low by reducing the need to hire new employees to create growth. The biggest cause of this productivity growth has been investment in information technology and software. This growth has allowed the Fed to cut rates more than it would otherwise, as inflationary pressures are reduced. Alan Greenspan has repeatedly cited productivity growth and was one of the first to view the 1990's boom in technology spending as a period of sustainable growth above historical levels. Eventually, continued productivity and economic growth will spur new investment and hiring.


A recession began in March of 2001 and ended in November of 2001. Much of the discussion in the economic news since has focused on a rather slow return to economic growth rates that we experienced in the late 1990s. Real GDP has failed to grow as rapidly as prior to the recession and, over much of time period since, employment has fallen and unemployment has increased.

The National Bureau of Economic Research, the agency that determines the official beginning and end of recessions, defines a recession as a "significant decline in activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, visible in industrial production, employment, real income, and wholesale-retail trade." The data show a decline in employment, but not as large as in the previous recession. Real income growth declined. Manufacturing and trade sales and industrial production both declined.

A Hint About News Reports

Many news reports simply use "gross domestic product" as a term to describe this announcement. The actual announcement focuses on the real gross domestic product, and that is the meaningful part of the report. In addition, newspapers will often refer to the rate of growth during the most recent quarter and will not always refer to the fact that it is reported at annual rates of change. This is contrasted to the reports of the consumer price index, which are reported at actual percentage changes in the index for a single month, and not at annual rates.

Explanations of GDP and its Components

It is common to see the following equation in economics textbooks:

GDP = C + I + G + NX

Consumption spending (C) consists of consumer spending on goods and services. It is often divided into spending on durable goods, non-durable goods, and services. These purchases accounted for 71 percent of GDP in 2003.

  • Durable goods are items such as cars, furniture, and appliances, which are used for several years (9%).
  • Non-durable goods are items such as food, clothing, and disposable products, which are used for only a short time period (20%).
  • Services include rent paid on apartments (or estimated values for owner-occupied housing), airplane tickets, legal and medical advice or treatment, electricity and other utilities. Services are the fastest growing part of consumption spending (42%).

Investment spending (I) consists of non-residential fixed investment, residential investment, and inventory changes. Investment spending accounts for 15 percent of GDP, but varies significantly from year to year.

  • Non-residential fixed investment is the creation of tools and equipment to use in the production of other goods and services. Examples are the building of factories, the production of new machines, and the manufacturing of computers for business use (10%).
    Residential investment is the building of a new homes or apartments (5%).
    Inventory changes consist of changes in the level of stocks of goods necessary for production and finished goods ready to be sold (0%).

Government spending (G) consists of federal, state, and local government spending on goods and services such as research, roads, defense, schools, and police and fire departments. This spending (19%) does not include transfer payments such as Social Security, unemployment compensation, and welfare payments, which do not represent production of goods and services. Federal defense spending now accounts for approximately 5 percent of GDP. All federal spending on goods and services makes up 7 percent of GDP. State and local spending on goods and services accounts for 12 percent of GDP.

Net Exports (NX) is equal to exports minus imports. Exports are items produced in the U.S. and purchased by foreigners (10%). Imports are items produced by foreigners and purchased by U.S. consumers (14%). Thus, net exports (exports minus imports) are negative, about -4% of the GDP.


Catagories of Spending
(in Billions of Dollars)

Consumption spending $8,000
Social security payments 500
Income tax receipts 1,000
Exports 1,000

Business purchases of new factories and equipment and changes in inventories


Federal government spending on goods and services

Construction of new homes 500

State and local spending on goods and services

Changes in inventories - 100
Imports 1,500
Wages 6,000

1. Given the hypothetical data in the table, calculate the following.

  1. what is the level of investment?
  2. what is the level of net exports?
  3. what is the level of government spending in the calculation of GDP?
  4. calculate the level of gross domestic product.
  1. If GDP has increases by 6 percent and inflation is 2 percent, what has happened to real GDP?
  2. If GDP increases by 3 percent and real GDP decreases by 2 percent, what has happened to the average price level?