Real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) during the third quarter (July through September) of 2003 increased at an annual rate of 7.2 percent.


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 November 30, -0001


Real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) during the second quarter (April through June) of 2003 increased at an annual rate of 3.3 percent. This is the third release of the data for the second quarter and is an increase that is higher than the previously announced 2.4 percent and 3.1 percent. The rate of growth in the second quarter compares to annual rates of 4.0, 1.4, and 1.4 percent in each of the previous three quarters. For the entire 2002 year, real GDP increased at a rate of 2.4 percent. During 2001, real GDP increased by .3 percent - a year in which real GDP fell during the first three quarters. Annual growth rates in 1999 and 2000 were 4.1 percent and 3.8 percent.

This announcement received a great deal of attention in the press because it represented more evidence that the economy is recovering from its 2001 recession. The increase in real GDP was largely due to increased consumption spending and national defense spending, with a small increase in investment spending.

Productivity of workers is still increasing faster than output and that means that it is unlikely for unemployment to fall soon.

Attention Teachers

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.

You may wish to use the following larger versions of the graphs and tables from this lesson for overhead projection or handout.

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 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 is discussed in news reports as a sign that the economy continues in its recovery from the recession in 2001 and the growth is significantly above that of the previous two quarters.

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 often 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. (See below for a discussion of the 2001 recession.)

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.

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 and 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. The changes in real GDP were negative for the first time since 1993. The recession ended in November 2001, but growth in real GDP has been modest since.

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 again by another .5 percent in November 2002 and most recently another .25 percent in June of 2003). (See the Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy Cases.) The effects of stimulative monetary policy and the resulting low interest rates have helped increase consumer spending during and since the recession. However, the growth throughout 2002 (2.4%) and into the first and second quarters of this year are still below that of the late 1990s.

Figure 1: Quarterly Changes in Real GDP at Annual Rates (1990-2003)

Long-run Trends

The rate of increase in real GDP has been not only higher in the last part of the 1990s than in the first half of the 1990s, but also when compared to most 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 (2.2%). 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.

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: Annual Percentage Changes in Real GDP (1970-2001)

Real GDP increases over time occurs when labor or capital increases, when labor is more productive, and when technology changes. Increases in capital, skills and abilities of the labor force, and technology can lead to increases in real GDP per person and ultimately standards of living.


The price index for GDP increased at an annual rate of one percent during the second quarter of 2003, compared to an increase of 2.4 percent during the first quarter of 2003. It increased at an annual rate of 1.1 percent for all of 2002, compared to 2.4 percent for 2001. Inflation is still not a current concern; some observers have even been concerned with the possibility of deflation.

  1. If GDP has increased by 3 percent and inflation is 1 percent, what has happened to real GDP?

    [If nominal GDP has increased by 3 percent and inflation was 1 percent, the amount of output has increased by 2 percent. The remaining (after inflation) increase in nominal GDP must be due to real output increases.]
  2. If GDP increases by 5 percent and real GDP increased by 5 percent, what has happened to the average price level?

    [If nominal GDP increases by 5 percent and the amount of output increases by 5 percent, then prices must not have changed.]

Details of the Second-Quarter Changes in Real GDP

Real GDP increased at an annual rate of 3.3 percent in the second quarter of 2003, greater than the 1.4 percent in the first quarter of 2003. The major contributors to the increase in real GDP in the second quarter were increases in personal consumption and federal defense spending. National defense spending increased at an annual rate of 46 percent during the quarter. Investment spending increased slightly after falling in the first quarter. Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, increased, lowering the calculated increase in real GDP. Exports fell slightly.

GDP, Productivity, and Unemployment

A major factor in the long-term growth in the American economy is continued improvement in productivity. (See the most recent Productivity case study).Productivity increased at an annual rate of 5.7 percent in the second quarter of 2003, 2.1 percent in the first quarter, and 5.4 percent for all of 2002. Businesses are able to gain more output from the same number of workers or in this instance, even fewer workers. This explains how real GDP can increase at the same time employment is falling. If real GDP grows more slowly (3.1%) than the increase in productivity (5.7%), fewer workers are needed to produce the real GDP. If unemployment is to fall, spending and output in the economy will have to grow faster than the increase in productivity.

The Federal Reserve has stated in 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 allows the Fed to cut rates greater than it would otherwise, as inflationary pressures are reduced. Chairman 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.

The 2001 Recession

On November 26, 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.

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 recession ended in November of 2001, but employment has yet to recover and continues to decrease. As long as growth in real GDP is less than the growth in the labor force and productivity, employment will decrease and unemployment will increase.

For the full press release 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

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 70 percent of GDP in 2002.

  • Durable goods are items such as cars, furniture, and appliances, which are used for several years (8%).
  • 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 (41%).

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. It is currently down as falls in investment spending have been a major cause of the recession and decrease in growth.

  • 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 (11%).
  • 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 (less than -1%).

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 4 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 goods and services 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. (For more information on the balance of trade, see the Trade Report case study.)

How can we increase economic growth in the future?

[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.]

GDP as a Measure of Well-being

Changes in real GDP are a more accurate representation of meaningful economic growth than changes in nominal GDP, because changes in real GDP represent changes in quantities produced, while prices are held constant. Real GDP per capita is even more relevant because it measures goods and services produced per person and thus approximates the amount of goods and services each person can enjoy. If real GDP grows, but the population grows faster, then each person, on average, is actually worse off than the change in real GDP would indicate.

Consider the table below. While the mainland part of China has a GDP of $991 billion, its GDP per capita is only $791.30. Hong Kong has a much smaller GDP of $159 billion. However, its GDP per capita is much higher at $23,639.58. Other nations, such as France and Germany, may have quite different GDPs, but GDPs per capita that are very close.

Population Numbers, Year 2000,
( )
Country Population GDP (billions) Per Capita GDP





(Hong Kong)












United States




GDP per capita is not a perfect estimate of well-being. When individuals grow their own food, build their own houses and sew their own clothes, they are not producing goods and services to be sold in a marketplace and therefore GDP does not change. As a result, many countries South America and Africa have a low GDP per capita that underestimates their well-being.

(The comparisons in the above table are of nominal GDP per capita, not real GDP per capita. As we are comparing per capita figures for the same year there is no need to deflate the nominal figures into real figures.)

Are extimates of GDP accurate measures of our well being?

[GDP fails to account for many forms of production that improve a person’s well being. For example, if you make a meal at home, the labor is not included. However, if you were to go out to a restaurant and consume that same meal, the labor is included in GDP. Unpaid work at home or for a friend and volunteer work is not included and thus GDP does not reflect production of all we produce.

External effects of production, such as pollution, are not subtracted from the value of GDP. Although two countries may have similar GDP growth rates, one country may have significantly cleaner water and air, and therefore is truly better off than the other country. If as economic growth accelerates, producers begin to employ production techniques that create more pollution, the effects of the growth are overstated.

GDP includes police protection, new prisons, and national defense as goods and services. It is not always clear that if we have to devote increased resources for such purposes that we are better off as a result.

GDP includes the effects of price changes. An increase in GDP due solely to inflation does not signal an improvement in living standards. Real GDP is a better measure. Nor does GDP reflect population growth. Changes in the income distribution are not measured. It is also difficult to compare rates of growth for different countries, as countries use different means of estimating income and price levels in their economy.

There are a variety of other weaknesses and inaccuracies, but GDP accounting is the best that we have. Real GDP does provide sound signals as to the direction of change of a selected large part of what we produce each year. Government statisticians and academics are constantly working to improve its accuracy and its ability to reflect our well-being.]

The U.S. as a Wealthy Country

Country Percentage of Global GDP Population Percentage of World Population
Worldwide Gross Domestic Product
Estimates of 2001 GDP in billions of current US dollars

United States   32.9%   281,550,000   4.6%
Japan   13.4%   126,870,000   2.1%
Germany   6.0%   82,150,000   1.4%
United Kingdom   4.6%   59,739,000   1.0%
France   4.2%   58,892,000   1.0%
China   3.7%   1,262,460,000   20.8%
Italy   3.5%   57,690,000   1.0%
Canada   2.3%   30,750,000   0.5%
Mexico   2.0%   97,966,000   1.6%
Spain   1.9%   39,465,000   0.7%

Total   74.5%   2,097,532,000   34.6%
World   100%   6,057,261,000   100%
Population numbers, year 2000,

An alternative way of comparing the size of world economies is to calculate the percentage of the world GDP (approximately $32 trillion) produced in each country and compare that to the percentage of the world's population living in each country. As seen in the table above, the top ten countries in terms of gross domestic product comprise 75 percent of the global GDP with only 35 percent of the world's population. The U.S. alone produces a third of the goods bought and sold around the world with only 4.7 percent of the world's population. There are significant differences in the wealth of nations and the income of its citizens. --->


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 is the final. While labeled as the final version, even it will eventually be revised after the final data for the year are published. Since 1978, 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.

Revisions in inventory investment and the international trade data are often the causes of changes in the GDP figures. Because changes in inventories and international trade data make up significant portions of the current report, one should be particularly cautious in using the “advance” and “preliminary” figures.


  1. Given the following data (in billions of current dollars),
    1. what is the level of government spending in the calculation of GDP?

      [Government spending equals $1,850
      ($550 plus $1,300).

      Government spending is equal to the sum of federal spending on goods and services and state and local spending on goods and services. Social security payments are transfers of income from tax payers to social security recipients and do not represent the production of goods and services.]

    2. what is the level of investment?

      [Investment equals $1,700
      ($1,800 + 200 - 300).

      New factories and equipment and construction of new homes are included in investment. However, since business inventories fell, we subtract $300 billion from investment in structures, equipment, and residential housing to get the investment portion of GDP.]

    3. what is the level of net exports?

      [Net exports equal a minus $400
      ($1,100 - 1,500).

      Net exports are exports minus imports. In this case, the economy has a balance of trade deficit.]

    4. calculate the level of gross domestic product.

      [GDP equals $10,150 billion
      ($7,000 + 1,850 + 1,700 - 400).

      GDP equals consumption spending plus government spending on goods and services plus investment spending plus net exports.]

  2. Consumption spending   $7,000
    Social security payments   500
    Income tax receipts   1,000
    Exports   1,100
    Business purchases of new factories and equipment and changes in inventories   1,800
    Federal government spending on goods and services   550
    Construction of new homes   200
    State and local spending on goods and services   1,300
    Changes in inventories   - 300
    Imports   1,500
    Wages   6,000

  3. If GDP has increased by 4 percent and inflation is 1 percent, what has happened to real GDP?

    [If nominal GDP has increased by 4 percent and inflation was 1 percent, the amount of output has increased by 3 percent. The remaining (after inflation) increase in nominal GDP must be due to real output increases.]

  4. If GDP increases by 5 percent and real GDP increased by 4 percent, what has happened to the average price level?

    [If nominal GDP increases by 5 percent and the amount of output increases by 4 percent, then prices must have increased by 1 percent.]
  5. If productivity rise by less than real GDP, what is likely to have happened to employment?
    Increase? Decrease? Cannot tell.

    [INCREASE. Because output increased by more than the output per worker, it must take more workers to produce the increased output.]

  6. If real GDP increased by 4 percent and employment increased by 3 percent, what is likely to have happened to productivity?

    [INCREASE. If real GDP increases by more than the rate of increase in the number of workers, than output per worker must have increased.]

Other Questions for Students

  1. If gross domestic product increases by 10 percent over a year, are we better off? Why or why not?

    [Perhaps we are better off. Part of the answer depends upon what is happening to prices and what is happening to population. If prices and population together are rising by more than 10 percent per year, than we, on average, are worse off. We have fewer goods and services per person.]

  2. If consumers begin to purchase automobiles manufactured abroad instead of those manufactured in the U.S., what will happen to real GDP? Will the answer be different if consumers are simply increasing their spending and those purchases are of automobiles manufactured abroad?

    [Consumption spending will remain the same; however, imports will increase. Real GDP in the U.S. will decrease. In the second instance, consumption spending increased, but imports increased by an equal amount. Real GDP does not change. The components do change.]