Explore the connection between the economic indicators and real-world issues. These lessons typically can be done in one class period.

KEY CONCEPTS

Consumers, Economic Growth, Exports, Government Expenditures, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Imports, Investing, Nominal Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Per Capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Real Gross Domestic Product (GDP)

Current Key Economic Indicators

as of May 5, 2013

Inflation

On a seasonally adjusted basis, the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers decreased 0.2 percent in March after increasing 0.7 percent in February. The index for all items less food and energy rose 0.1 percent in March after rising 0.2 percent in February.

Employment and Unemployment

Total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 165,000 in April, and the unemployment rate was little changed at 7.5 percent. Employment increased in professional and business services, food services and drinking places, retail trade, and health care.

Real GDP

Real gross domestic product increased at an annual rate of 2.5 percent in the first quarter of 2013 (that is, from the fourth quarter to the first quarter), according to the "advance" estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the fourth quarter, real GDP increased 0.4 percent.

Federal Reserve

To support continued progress toward maximum employment and price stability, the Committee expects that a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy will remain appropriate for a considerable time after the asset purchase program ends and the economic recovery strengthens. In particular, the Committee decided to keep the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent and currently anticipates that this exceptionally low range for the federal funds rate will be appropriate at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6-1/2 percent...


[Note to teacher:

Goals of Case Study

The goals of the GDP case studies are to provide teachers and students:

  • access to easily understood, timely interpretations of monthly announcements of rates of change in real GDP and the accompanying related data in the U.S. economy;
  • descriptions of major issues surrounding the data announcements;
  • brief analyses of historical perspectives;
  • questions and activities to use to reinforce and develop understanding of relevant concepts; and
  • a list of publications and resources that may benefit classroom teachers and students interested in exploring inflation.

Material that appears in italics is included in the teacher version only. All other material appears in the student version. Throughout the semester, the GDP cases will become progressively more comprehensive and advanced.]

Original U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis Announcement and Data:

Announcement

Real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) during the first quarter (January, February, and March) of 2007 increased at an annual rate of .7 percent (seven-tenths of one percent). This is the third estimate of the rate of change for the first quarter of 2007.

For the entire 2006 year, real GDP increased at a rate of 3.3 percent. Annual growth rates in 2003, 2004, and 2005 were 2.5, 3.9, and 3.2 percent. This quarter's increase compares to annual rates of increase of 2.0 and 2.5 percent in each of the two previous quarters.

Quarterly growth at annual rates

Rates of change in GDP figures are reported for years and quarters. When the quarterly rates of increase are reported, they are reported as though the changes at occurred for an entire year. That means that real GDP did not actually increase .7 percent during the first quarter of 2007. If the rate of growth during the first quarter of the year had continued for an entire year, real GDP would have been seven-tenths of one percent higher. (The actual growth rate during the quarter was approximately one-fourth of .7 percent or slightly over .17 of one percent.) This means that for all practical purposes, there was practically no growth in real GDP in the quarter.

Reporting at annual rates makes it easier to compare the change in a quarter to the change of another quarter and to the change over an entire year.

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.

There are often a number of different measures of GDP reported. Nominal GDP, or simply GDP, is total output in current prices. Real GDP is total output with prices held constant. Real GDP per capita is the real GDP per person in the economy and is the best measure of well-being of all the other measures.

One approximate means of calculating real GDP per capita is to identify the increase in nominal GDP and then subtract the percentage increase in prices and the percentage increase in population. That would leave the percentage increase in real GDP per capita.

Data Trends

Following the 2001 recession, growth in real GDP increased in 2002, 2003, and 2004, reaching 3.9 percent in 2004. The annual rate of growth decreased slightly in 2005 and 2006 to 3.2 and 3.3 percent respectively. Growth in the first quarter of 2006 was rapid and slowed in the second, third, and fourth quarters 0f 2006. The rate of growth in the first quarter of 2007 is the lowest since the fourth quarter of 2002.

The rate of growth over the last twelve months has been slightly under 2 percent, the slowest of any twelve-month period since the end of 2002 and beginning of 2003. The actual rates for the last three quarters of 2006 were 2.6, 2.0, and 2.5 percent

The causes of the slowdown over the last twelve months are the lagged effects of a restrictive monetary policy (See the latest FOMC case study.), the lagged effects of the slowing growth in prices of homes and importance of that change for consumption spending, and a slowdown in investment spending on the part of businesses.

The particular slowing of growth in the first quarter comes from what are likely temporary factors. Businesses have reduced inventory investment during the quarter and that is viewed as a positive sign for future spending on the part of businesses. Even though we should remember that this is just one quarter of a year, growth this slow should be of some concern.

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 policies, 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 rates of inflation and unemployment and changes in our income distribution provide us additional measures of the successes and weaknesses of our economy, none is a more important indicator of our economy's health than rates 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. This current increase in real GDP will be discussed in news reports as a positive sign of the strength of the current economy.

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.

Long-run Trends

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 (2.2%). In the last five years of the 1990s, the rate of growth in real GDP increased to 3.8 percent, with the last three years of the 1990s being at or over 4.1 percent per year. Growth slowed in the beginning of the 2000s, but rebounded and averaged 3.5 percent on an annual basis for the 2003 through 2006 period.

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. Figure 2 shows the history of growth since the 1970s. Figure 2 also shows the average annual rate of growth of 3.1 percent since 1970.

The longer run rate of growth of 3.1 percent has most recently been caused by a one percent increase in the number of people working and about a two percent increase in productivity of each worker. During the periods prior to the 1990s, the productivity increase contribution was slightly less than two percent and the labor force growth part slightly higher than one percent.

Prices

The price index for GDP increased at an annual rate of 4.2 percent during the first quarter of 2007, compared to the rate of increase of 1.9 and 1.6 percent during the third and fourth quarters of 2006. The rise in the rate of increase in the first quarter is due primarily to the rise in oil prices. It increased at an average annual rate of 2.9 percent for all of 2004, 2005, and 2006. See the latest inflation case study for a discussion of the recent increases in price levels.

The Federal Open Market Committee pays particular attention to the portion of the GDP index that focuses on consumption purchases and in particular that index that excludes purchases of energy and food items. This is an effort to use a broader index than just the core CPI. The FOMC believes that this index also more accurately reflects trends in prices. The personal consumption expenditures price index increased at an annual rate of 2.3 percent during the first quarter. See the latest FOMC case study for more information.

Details of the First-Quarter Changes in Real GDP

Real GDP increased at an annual rate of .7 percent. That estimate is a slight upward revision from the previous announcement, but still is a significant slowdown in the growth in real GDP. The major contributors to the increase in real GDP were increases in consumption (4.2 annual percent increase) and state and local government spending (3.9 percent). Investment in inventories and housing and federal government spending fell. In addition, increases in spending on imports had the effect of lowering the rise in real GDP as larger amount of consumption and investment spending was spent on imported goods.

The decrease in the growth rate of real GDP in the first quarter when compared to the fourth quarter was primarily caused by the decrease in exports, the increase in spending on imports, the fall in inventory investment, and a decrease in federal government spending.

GDP, Productivity, and Unemployment

A major factor in the long-term growth in the American economy is continued improvement in productivity. Productivity increased at an annual rate of 1.6 percent in the first quarter of 2007, slower than the 2.1 percent increase during the fourth quarter of 2006.

With productivity increases, businesses are able to gain more output from the same number of workers. But businesses also need more workers. If real GDP grows faster than the increase in productivity, more workers are needed to produce the real GDP and employment will rise in the quarter. If output rises more slowly than the rise in productivity, than fewer workers or fewer hours of work will be needed to produce the real GDP.

The Federal Reserve has stated in many of its recent releases that continued productivity growth is a key component in the continued growth in the American economy. Businesses are able to expand production more rapidly than the growth in employment and thus, the most important consequence, real GDP per capita can increase.

Have students click the start button below for an interactive activity.

Recessions

On November 2001, the National Bureau of Economic Research announced though its Business Cycle Dating Committee that it had determined that a peak in business activity occurred in March of 2001. That signaled the official beginning of a recession. In July 2003, the committee reported its determination of the end of the recession as of November 2001.

The NBER 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 current data show a decline in employment, but not as large as in the previous recession. Real income growth slowed but did not decline. Manufacturing and trade sales and industrial production both declined and had been doing so for some time. The two most recent recessions are shown on table 1.

The previous recession began in July of 1990 and ended in March of 1991, a period of eight months. However, the beginning of the recession was not announced until April of 1991. The end of the recession was announced in December of 1992, almost 21 months later. One of the reasons the end of the recession was so difficult to determine was the economy did not grow rapidly even after it came out a period of falling output and income.

or the full press release on recessions from the National Bureau of Economic Research see:

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

Have students click the start button below for an interactive activity.

Gross domestic product consists of goods and services produced for consumption, for investment, for government, and for export. The GDP accounts are broken down into consumption spending, investment spending, government spending, and spending on U.S. exports. To arrive at the amount actually produced (that is, GDP) our spending on imports is subtracted from those other amounts of spending. Thus,

GDP = Consumption spending + investment spending + government spending + export spending – import spending

Consumption spending consists of consumer spending on goods and services. It is often divided into spending on durable goods, non-durable goods, and services. These purchases currently account for 70 percent of GDP.

•  Durable goods are items such as cars, furniture, and appliances, which are used for several years.
•  Non-durable goods are items such as food, clothing, and disposable products, which are used for only a short time period.
•  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.

Investment spending consists of non-residential fixed investment, residential investment, and inventory changes. Investment spending accounts for 17 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.
•  Residential investment is the building of a new homes or apartments.
•  Inventory changes consist of changes in the level of stocks of goods necessary for production and finished goods ready to be sold.

Government spending 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 percent) 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. State and local spending on goods and services accounts for 12 percent of GDP, while federal spending is 7 percent of GDP.

Exports are goods and services produced in the U.S. and purchased by foreigners – currently about 11 percent of GDP.

Imports are items produced by foreigners and purchased by U.S. consumers are equal to 17 percent of GDP. Net exports (exports minus imports) are negative and are about 6 percent of the GDP.

Revisions in GDP Announcements

Real GDP for each quarter is announced three times. The month following the end of the quarter is described as the advance real GDP; the second announcement or revision is described as the preliminary announcement; and the third month (this one) is the final revision. While labeled as the final version, even it will eventually be revised after the final data for the year are published. From 1983 to 2002, the advance estimates of the rate of growth in real GDP have been revised an average of 0.5 percent in the next month's preliminary estimate. The preliminary estimates have been revised by an average of an additional 0.3 percent.

For the first quarter of 2007, the advance estimate was a 1.3 percent increase; the preliminary announcement was a .6 percent increase. The final estimate is slightly higher than the preliminary announcement.

Revisions in inventory investment and the international trade data are often the causes of changes in the GDP figures. Those data for the last month of the quarter are not available when the advance estimate of GDP is announced and only initial estimates are available at the time of the preliminary estimate. In the current quarter, the revision was primarily due to larger increases in exports.

Full Employment Real GDP

Economists define the approximate unemployment rate, at which there are not upward or downward pressures on wages and price, as full employment rate of unemployment. If unemployment falls to level below the full employment rate, there will be upward pressure on wages and prices. If unemployment rises to a very high rate, there will downward pressure on wages and prices or wages and prices will remain steady. In the middle is a level, or more likely a range, where there is not pressure on wages and prices to rise or fall.

The level of real GDP that can be produced at that rate of unemployment is described at the full employment level of real GDP. Sometimes it is described as the potential level of real GDP. It is the highest level that an economy can produce at any given time without causing significant inflation.

How can we increase economic growth over time?

Economic growth is a function of the technological innovation and the amount and quality of labor and capital in the economy:

As more people are employed, the amount of capital increases, education levels increase, the quality of capital changes, or the technology increases, the productive capacity of the economy increases. Therefore, the economy can increase its output giving consumers more disposable income, promoting an increase in consumption spending, and providing resources for business to use for further investment and government to use to provide public goods and services.

Increased labor force participation increases output. Expanded, improved education creates more productive workers. Business and government spending on research and development enhance our abilities to produce and allow each worker to become more productive, increasing incomes for all. Finally, to achieve a higher level of GDP in the future, consumers need to limit consumption spending and increase savings today, permitting businesses to invest more in capital goods. If resources are invested into building an economy now, future generations will enjoy a higher level of economic growth; our businesses will produce more goods and consumers can purchase more goods. Expansion of output at rates faster than our population growth is what gives us the opportunity to enjoy higher standards of living.

Interactive Activities

Have your students complete the following discussion question.

 

  1. Given the data in this case study, what would you recommend for monetary policy? [It is not obvious that the Federal Reserve should change its current policies. However, there is increasing evidence that if current conditions continue, the Federal Reserve may want to begin a new tightening of monetary policy because of concerns with inflation. The decision is not obvious.]
     
  2. Given the data in this case study, what would you recommend for fiscal policy? [Fiscal policy should not counteract a tighter monetary policy. If a slowing of the growth in spending is needed to remove inflationary pressures, taxes should be increased and/or spending should be reduced. If however, stimulative policy is called for, it may difficult to lower taxes or raise spending given relatively large budget deficits.]

[The increase in real GDP is relatively low. The core rate of inflation has increased. Unemployment rates are relatively low. There are some indications that increases in real GDP may continue to be slow in the current quarter and early next year.]