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Posts Tagged ‘indicators’

Measuring wellbeing

GDP is often used as a measure of wellbeing, even though it is really only a measure of the market value of a nation’s output or an indicator of economic activity. But although higher consumption can improve living standards, it is only one contributor to wellbeing, whether at individual or social level.

There are essentially four types of problems from using GDP as a measure of how society is doing.

The first is that it does not include (as negative figures) many external costs, such as pollution, stress and family breakdown related to work.

The second is that it includes things that are produced to counteract the adverse effects of increased production, such as security, antidepressants, therapy and clean-up activities.

The third is that it ignores things that are produced and do contribute to wellbeing and yet are not traded in the market. Examples include volunteer work, the ‘output’ of clubs and societies, work within the home, production from allotments and various activities taking place in the ‘underground economy’ to avoid taxation.

The fourth is the sustainability of economic growth. If we deplete natural resources, the growth of today may be at the cost of the wellbeing of future generations.

Then there is the question of the distribution of the benefits of production. Although GDP figures can be adjusted for distribution, crude GDP growth figures are not. If a few wealthy get a lot richer and the majority do not, or even get poorer, a growth in GDP will not signify a growth in wellbeing of the majority.

Then there is the question of the diminishing marginal utility of income. If an extra pound to a rich person gives less additional wellbeing than an extra pound to a poor person, then any given growth rate accompanied by an increase in inequality will contribute less to wellbeing than the same growth rate accompanied by a decrease in inequality.

The first article below criticises the use of crude indicators, such as the growth in GDP or stock market prices to signify wellbeing. It also looks at some alternative indicators that can capture some of the contributions to wellbeing missed by GDP figures.

Articles
Want to know how society’s doing? Forget GDP – try these alternatives The Guardian, Mark Rice-Oxley (27/1/17)
The Increasingly Inadequate Measurement Of Productivity The Market Mogul, Chris Woods (20/1/17)
Why GDP fails as a measure of well-being CBS News, Mark Thoma (27/1/16)
Limitations of GDP as Welfare Indicator The Sceptical Economist, zielonygrzyb (31/7/12)

Questions

  1. Should GDP be abandoned as an indicator?
  2. How could GDP be refined to capture more of the factors affecting wellbeing?
  3. Go through each of the indicators discussed in the first article above and consider their suitability as an indicator of wellbeing.
  4. “Everywhere you look, there are better benchmarks than these tired old financial yardsticks.” Identify three such indicators not considered in the first article and discuss their suitability as measures of economic performance.
  5. How might the benefit you gain from free apps be captured?
  6. Consider the suitability of these alternatives to GDP.
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The MPC – looking for a remit (Part 2: new forward guidance)

With the publication of the February 2014 Inflation Report the Bank of England has adjusted its forward guidance to the markets.

As we saw in Part 1 of this blog, the economy should soon fall below the 7% unemployment threshold adopted in the original forward guidance issued last August. But the Bank feels that there is still too much slack in the economy to raise interest rates when unemployment does fall below 7%.

The Bank has thus issued a new vaguer form of forward guidance.

The MPC’s view is that the economy currently has spare capacity equivalent to about 1%–1½% of GDP, concentrated in the labour market. Around half of that slack reflects the difference between the current unemployment rate of 7.1% and an estimate of its
medium-term equilibrium rate of 6%–6½%. The remaining slack largely reflects a judgement that employees would like to work more hours than is currently the case. Companies appear to be operating at close to normal levels of capacity, although this is subject to some uncertainty.

The existence of spare capacity in the economy is both wasteful and increases the risk that inflation will undershoot the target in the medium term. Moreover, recent developments in inflation mean that the near-term trade-off between keeping inflation close to the target and supporting output and employment is more favourable than at the time the MPC announced its guidance last August: CPI inflation has fallen back to the 2% target more quickly than anticipated and, with domestic costs well contained, is expected to remain at, or a little below, the target for the next few years. The MPC therefore judges that there remains scope to absorb spare capacity further before raising Bank Rate.

Just what will determine the timing and pace of tightening? The Bank identifies three factors: the sustainability of the recovery; the extent to which supply responds to demand; and the evolution of cost and price pressures. But there is considerable uncertainty about all of these.

Thus although this updated forward guidance suggests that interest rates will not be raised for some time to come, even when unemployment falls below 7%, it is not at all clear when a rise in Bank Rate is likely to be, and then how quickly and by how much Bank Rate will be raised over subsequent months. Partly this is because of the inevitable uncertainty about future developments in the economy, but partly this is because it is not clear just how the MPC will interpret developments.

So is this new vaguer forward guidance helpful? The following articles address this question.

Articles
Bank of England Governor Carney’s statement on forward guidance Reuters (12/2/14)
Why has Mark Carney tweaked forward guidance? The Telegraph, Denise Roland (12/2/14)
Interest rates: Carney rips up ‘forward guidance’ policy Channel 4 News (12/2/14)
Forward guidance version 2: will the public believe it? The Guardian, Larry Elliott (12/2/14)
Mark Carney adjusts Bank interest rate policy BBC News (12/2/14)
Mark Carney’s almost promise on rates BBC News, Robert Peston (12/2/14)
Did the Bank of England’s Forward Guidance work? Independent, Ben Chu (2/2/14)
Forward Guidance 2.0: Is Carney just digging with a larger shovel? Market Watch, The Tell (12/2/14)
The U.K. Economy: Five Key Takeaways Wall Street Journal, Alen Mattich (12/2/14)

Bank of England pages
Inflation Report, February 2014 Bank of England (12/2/14)
Monetary Policy Bank of England
MPC Remit Letters Bank of England
Forward Guidance Bank of England

Questions

  1. Summarize the new forward guidance given by the Bank of England.
  2. Why is credibility an important requirement for policy?
  3. What data would you need to have in order to identify the degree of economic slack in the economy?
  4. Why is it difficult to obtain such data – at least in a reliable form?
  5. What is meant by the ‘output gap’? Would it be a good idea to target the output gap?
  6. Is it possible to target the rate of inflation and one or more other indicators at the same time? Explain.
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The MPC – looking for a remit (Part 1: the options)

Although the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the Bank of England is independent in setting interest rates, until recently it still had to follow a precise remit set by the government. This was to target inflation of 2% (±1%), with interest rates set to meet this target in 24 months’ time. But things have changed since the new Governor, Mark Carney, took up office in July 2013. And now things are not so clear cut.

The Bank announced that it would keep Bank Rate at the current historically low level of 0.5% at least until unemployment had fallen to 7%, subject to various conditions. More generally, the Bank stated that:

The MPC intends at a minimum to maintain the present highly stimulative stance of monetary policy until economic slack has been substantially reduced, provided this does not entail material risks to price stability or financial stability.

This ‘forward guidance’ was designed to provide more information about future policy and thereby more certainty for businesses and households to plan.

But unemployment has fallen rapidly in recent months. It fell from a 7.7% average for the three months May to July 2013 to 7.1% for the latest available three months (September to November 2013). And yet there is still considerable slack in the economy.

It now, therefore, looks highly unlikely that the MPC will raise Bank Rate as soon as unemployment falls below 7%. This then raises the question of how useful the 7% target has been and whether, if anything, it has created further uncertainty about future MPC decisions.

The following still appears on the Bank of England website:

The MPC intends at a minimum to maintain the present highly stimulative stance of monetary policy until economic slack has been substantially reduced, provided this does not entail material risks to price stability or financial stability.

But this raises two questions: (a) how do you measure ‘economic slack’ and (b) what constitutes a substantial reduction?

So what should the Bank do now? What, if any, forward guidance should it offer to the markets? Will that forward guidance be credible? After all, credibility among businesses and households is an important condition for any policy stance. According to Larry Elliott in the first article below, there are five options.

Articles
Bank of England’s method of setting interest rates needs reviewing The Guardian, Larry Elliott (9/2/14)
Mark Carney set to adjust Bank interest rate policy BBC News (12/2/14)
Forward guidance: dead and alive BBC News, Robert Peston (11/2/14)
What “forward guidance” is, and how it (theoretically) works The Economist (11/2/14)
BOE’s forward guidance 2.0: Cheap talk, or big change? Market Watch (11/2/14)

Bank of England pages
Monetary Policy Bank of England
MPC Remit Letters Bank of England
Forward Guidance Bank of England

Questions

  1. What data would you need to have in order to identify the degree of economic slack in the economy?
  2. Why is it difficult to obtain such data – at least in a reliable form?
  3. Why might the issuing of the forward guidance last July have itself contributed to the fall in unemployment?
  4. Why is it difficult to obtain such data – at least in a reliable form?
  5. Why is credibility an important requirement for policy?
  6. Why may LFS unemployment be a poor guide to the degree of slack in the economy?
  7. Discuss the relative merits of each of the five policy options identified by Larry Elliott.
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Time to leave GDP behind?

GDP is still the most frequently used indicator of a country’s development. When governments target economic growth as a key goal, it is growth in GDP to which they are referring. And they often make the assumption that growth in GDP is a proxy for growth in well-being. But is it time to leave GDP behind as the main indicator of national economic success? This is the question posed in the first of the linked articles below, from the prestigious science journal Nature.

As the article states:

Robert F. Kennedy once said that a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) measures “everything except that which makes life worthwhile”. The metric was developed in the 1930s and 1940s amid the upheaval of the Great Depression and global war. Even before the United Nations began requiring countries to collect data to report national GDP, Simon Kuznets, the metric’s chief architect, had warned against equating its growth with well-being.

GDP measures mainly market transactions. It ignores social costs, environmental impacts and income inequality. If a business used GDP-style accounting, it would aim to maximize gross revenue — even at the expense of profitability, efficiency, sustainability or flexibility. That is hardly smart or sustainable (think Enron). Yet since the end of the Second World War, promoting GDP growth has remained the primary national policy goal in almost every country

So what could replace GDP, or be considered alongside GDP? Should we try to measure happiness? After all, behavioural scientists are getting much better at understanding and measuring the psychology of human well-being (see the blog posts Money can’t buy me love and Happiness economics).

Or should we focus primarily on long-term issues of the sustainability of development? Or should we focus more on the distribution of income or well-being in a world that is becoming increasingly unequal?

Or should measures of well-being involve weighted composite indices involving things such as life-expectancy, education, housing, democratic engagement, leisure time, social mobility, etc. And, if so, how should the weightings of the different indicators be determined? The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) produces annual Human Development Reports, where countries are ranked according to a Human Development Index. As the UNDP site states:

The breakthrough for the HDI was the creation of a single statistic which was to serve as a frame of reference for both social and economic development. The HDI sets a minimum and a maximum for each dimension, called goalposts, and then shows where each country stands in relation to these goalposts, expressed as a value between 0 and 1.

HDI is a composite of three sets of indicators: education, life expectancy and income (see). The UNDP since 2010 has also produced an Inequality-adjusted HDI (IHDI).

The IHDI will be equal to the HDI value when there is no inequality, but falls below the HDI value as inequality rises. The difference between the HDI and the IHDI represents the ‘loss’ in potential human development due to inequality and can be expressed as a percentage.

You can now build your own HDI for each country on the UNDP site by selecting from the following indicators: health, education, income, inequality, poverty and gender.

The Nature article considers a number of measures of progress and considers their relative merits. The other articles also look at measuring national progress and well-being and at the relationship between income per head and happiness. It is clear that focusing on GDP alone provides too simplistic an approach to measuring development.

Development: Time to leave GDP behind Nature, Robert Costanza, Ida Kubiszewski, Enrico Giovannini, Hunter Lovins, Jacqueline McGlade, Kate E. Pickett, Kristín Vala Ragnarsdóttir, Debra Roberts, Roberto De Vogli and Richard Wilkinson (15/1/14)
The happiness agenda makes for miserable policy The Conversation, Daniel Sage (9/1/14)
Economic view: No matter what the politicians say, GDP is a distorted guide to economic performance and a bad way to measure prosperity Independent, Guy Hands (28/1/14)
Buy buy love The Economist (22/6/13)
Experts confirm that money does buy happiness – but only up to £22,100 Independent, Jamie Merrill (28/11/13)
Can Money Buy Happiness? Scientific American, Sonja Lyubomirsky (10/8/10)
Money can buy happiness The Economist (2/5/13)
Money can buy happiness Hacker News, pyduan (13/1/14)
Can ‘happiness economics’ provide a new framework for development? The Guardian, Christian Kroll (3/9/13)
The 10 Things Economics Can Tell Us About Happiness The Atlantic, Derek Thompson (31/5/12)
Financial crisis hits happiness levels BBC News (3/11/13)
Happiness study finds that UK is passing point of peak life satisfaction The Guardian, Larry Elliott (27/11/13)
How GDP became the figure everyone wanted to watch BBC News, Peter Day (16/4/14)
Economic development can only buy happiness up to a ‘sweet spot’ of $36,000 GDP per person Science Daily (27/11/13)

Questions

  1. What does GDP measure?
  2. How suitable a measure of economic progress is growth in GDP?
  3. How can GDP be adjusted to make it a more suitable measure of economic progress?
  4. What are the advantages of using composite indicators of well-being?
  5. What difficulties are there in measuring well-being using composite indicators?
  6. Assuming there were no measurement problems, what indicators would you include in devising the optimum composite indicator of well-being?
  7. Can money buy happiness?
  8. Why do life satisfaction levels peak at around $36,000 (adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity (PPP))?
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GDP and development

The link below is to an article by Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft. He argues that per-capita GDP is a poor indicator of development, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The problems with using GDP as an indicator of the level of development of a country are well known and several alternative measures are in common use. Perhaps the best known is the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index (HDI), where countries are given an HDI of between 0 and 1. HDI is the average of three indices based on three sets of variables: (i) life expectancy at birth, (ii) education (a weighted average of (a) the mean years that a 25-year-old person or older has spent in school and (b) the number of years of schooling that a 5-year-old child is expected to have over their lifetime) and (iii) real gross national income (GNY) per capita, measured in US dollars at purchasing-power parity exchange rates (see Box 27.1 in Economics 8th edition for more details).

But although indicators such as this capture more elements of development than simple per-capita GNP or GNY, there are still serious shortcomings. A major problem is the lack of and inaccuracy of statistics, especially when applied to the rural subsistence and informal urban sectors. The problem is recognised and some countries are trying to address the problem (see the second article below), but the problem is huge. As Gates says:

It is clear to me that we need to devote greater resources to getting basic GDP numbers right. … National statistics offices across Africa need more support so that they can obtain and report timelier and more accurate data. Donor governments and international organisations such as the World Bank need to do more to help African authorities produce a clearer picture of their economies. And African policymakers need to be more consistent about demanding better statistics and using them to inform decisions.

Another problem is how you convert data into internationally comparable forms. For example, how are inflation, exchange rates, income distribution, the quality of health provision and education, etc. taken into account?

How GDP understates economic growth The Guardian, Bill Gates (8/5/13)
States’ GDP computation report out soon, says Nigeria statistics bureau Premium Times (Nigeria), Bassey Udo (9/5/13)
Michael Porter Presents New Alternative to GDP: The Social Progress Index (SPI) Triple Pundit, Raz Godelnik (13/4/13)

Questions

  1. By accessing the Human Development Index site, identify which countries have a much higher ranking by HDP than by per capita gross national income. Explain why.
  2. Why is expressing GNY in purchasing-power parity (PPP) terms likely to increase the GNY figures for the poorest countries?
  3. Explain the following quote from the Gates article: ‘I have long believed that GDP understates growth even in rich countries, where its measurement is quite sophisticated, because it is very difficult to compare the value of baskets of goods across different time periods’.
  4. Why is GNY per capita, even when expressed in PPP terms, likely to understate the level of development in subsistence economies?
  5. Explain whether the rate of growth of GNY per capita is likely to understate or overstate the rate of economic development of sub-Saharan African countries?
  6. Why are the challenges of calculating GDP or GNY particularly acute in sub-Saharan Africa?
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Accelerating the recession

Investment in the UK in quarter 2 2009 fell by the largest amount since records began in 1965. Why has this happened and what does it tell us about the determinants of investment? Does it mean that businesses are short sighted or risk averse, or does the lack of investment reflect a lack of finance in the aftermath of the credit crunch. The following articles look at the data and what they signify.

British business investment plunges most in 44 years Telegraph (27/8/09)
Business investment falls sharply in Q2 Reuters (27/8/09)
Economy shrinks less than thought BBC News (28/8/09)
UK GDP contracts less than expected Telegraph (28/8/09)

For the ONS data see:
Business Investment: 10.4% down in second quarter 2009 ONS (27/8/09) and
Business investment: Provisional results – 2nd quarter 2009 ONS Statistical Bulletin (27/8/09)

Questions

  1. Chart the quarterly percentage change in business investment and quarterly economic growth on the same diagram. (See the second ONS link above and also Gross domestic product: Preliminary estimate – 2nd Quarter 2009 and GDP growth (revised estimate).
  2. Why has investment fallen so dramatically?
  3. Is the pattern of investment and GDP growth consistent with the accelerator theory?
  4. To what extent is investment a leading or a lagging indicator of economic activity?
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