The distinction between nominal and real values is an incredibly important one in economics. We apply the latest GDP numbers from the ONS to show how the inflation-adjusted numbers help to convey the twin characteristics of growth: positive longer-term growth but variable short-term rates of growth. It is real GDP numbers that help us to understand better the macroeconomic environment and, not least, its inherent volatility. To use nominal GDP numbers means painting a less than clear, if not inaccurate, picture of the macroeconomic environment.
The provisional estimate for GDP (the value of output) in the UK in 2018 is £2.115 trillion, up 3.2 per cent from £2.050 trillion in 2017. These are the actual numbers, or what are referred to as nominal values. They make no adjustment for inflation and reflect the prices of output that were prevailing at the time. Hence, the figures are also referred to as GDP at current prices.
The use of nominal GDP data can be something of a problem when we compare historical values. In 1950, for example, as we can see from Chart 1, nominal GDP in 1950 was a mere £12.926 billion. In other words, the nominal figures show that the value of the country’s output was 163.595 times greater in 2018 (or an increase of 162,595 per cent). However, if we want to make a more meaningful comparison of the country’s national income we need to adjust for inflation. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)
If we measure GDP at constant prices we eliminate the effect of inflation. This allow us to make a more meaningful comparison of national income. Consider first the real GDP numbers for 1950 and 2018. GDP in 1950 at 2016 prices was £373.9 billion. This is higher than the nominal (current-price) value because prices in 2016 were higher than those in 1950. Meanwhile, GDP in 2018 when measured at 2016 prices was £2.034 trillion. This real value is smaller than the corresponding nominal value because prices in 2016 where lower than those in 2018.
Between 1950 and 2018 there was a proportionate increase in real GDP of 5.439 (or a 443.9 per cent increase). Because we have removed the effect of inflation the real growth figure is much lower than the nominal growth figure. Crucially, what we are left with is an indicator of the growth in the volume of output. Whereas nominal growth rates are affected both by changes in volumes and prices, real growth rates reflect only changes in volumes.
Consider now output growth between 2017 and 2018. As we saw earlier, the nominal figures suggest growth of 3.2 per cent. In fact, GDP at constant 2016 prices increased from £2005.4 trillion in 2017 to £2,033.6 trillion in 2018: an increase of 1.4 per cent. This was the lowest rate of growth in national output since 2012 when output also grew by 1.4 per cent. In 2017 national output had increased by 1.8 per cent, the same increase as in 2016.
To put the recent growth in national output into context, Chart 2 shows the annual rate of growth in real GDP each year since 1950. Across the period, the average annual rate of growth in real GDP and, hence, in the volume of national output was 2.5 per cent. In the current decade growth has averaged only 1.9 per cent. This followed falls of 0.3 per cent and 4.2 per cent in 2008 and 2009 respectively as the effects of the financial crisis on the economy were felt. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)
By plotting the percentage changes in real GDP from year to year, we get a much clearer sense of the inherent instability that we identified at the outset as a characteristic of growth. This is true not only for the UK, but economies more generally. This instability is the key characteristic of the macroeconomic environment. It influences and informs much of what we study in economics.
The variability of growth rates that create the instability of economies again requires an understanding of the distinction between nominal and real GDP. Chart 3 illustrates the growth in GDP both in nominal and real terms. The average annual rate of growth of nominal GDP is 7.8 per cent, considerably higher than the average real growth rate of 2.5 per cent per year. The difference again reflects the effect of rising prices. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.
Chart 3 clearly shows the wrong conclusions that can be drawn if one was to focus on the growth in nominal GDP from year to year. Perhaps the best example is 1975. In this year nominal GDP grew by 24.2 per cent. However, the volume of national output contracted: real GDP fell by 1.5 per cent. The growth in nominal GDP reflects the rapid growth in prices seen in that year. The economy’s average price level (the GDP deflator) rose by 26.1 per cent. Hence, the growth in nominal GDP reflected not an increase in the volume of output – that fell – but instead a large increase in prices.
The importance of the distinction between nominal and real GDP is further demonstrated by the fact that since 1950 nominal GDP has fallen in only one year. In 2009 nominal GDP fell by 2.7 per cent. The 1.6 per cent rise in the economy’s average price level was not enough to offset the fall in the volume of output of just over 4.2 per cent. In other years when the volume of output (real GDP) fell, the effect of rising prices meant that the value of output (nominal GDP) nonetheless rose.
So to conclude, the distinction between nominal and real GDP is crucial when analysing economic growth. To understand the distinction gives you a truly real advantage in making sense of the macroeconomic environment.
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- What do you understand by the term ‘macroeconomic environment’? What data could be used to describe the macroeconomic environment?
- When a country experiences positive rates of inflation, which is higher: nominal economic growth or real economic growth?
- Does an increase in nominal GDP mean a country’s production has increased? Explain your answer.
- Does a decrease in nominal GDP mean a country’s production has decreased? Explain your answer.
- Why does a change in the growth of real GDP allow us to focus on what has happened to the volume of production?
- What does the concept of the ‘business cycle’ have to do with real rates of economic growth?
- When would falls in real GDP be classified as a recession?
- Distinguish between the concepts of ‘short-term growth rates’ and ‘longer-term growth’.
- Why might the distinction between nominal and real be important when analysing changes in people’s pay? What would be the significance of an increase in real pay?