A “HOW-TO” GUIDE:
By Jim Stanford
© Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2008
Non-commercial use and reproduction, with appropriate citation, is
This guide provides basic information and instructions for obtaining and analyzing
Gross Domestic Product (GDP): GDP equals the value of all the goods and services
produced for money in an economy, evaluated at their market prices. GDP excludes the
value of unpaid work (such as caring reproductive labour performed in the home). GDP
is calculated by adding up the value-added at each stage of production (deducting the cost
of produced inputs and materials purchased from an industry’s suppliers).
Nominal GDP: This is the simplest, most direct measure of GDP, expressed in dollar
Real GDP: This is the value of GDP, adjusted for changes in the overall level of prices
in an economy. Real GDP must be expressed in terms of a “base year.” The average
level of prices is measured starting at that base year (example: U.S. statistics on real GDP
are currently expressed in 2000 dollar terms – that is, in reference to the average level of
prices that prevailed in the U.S. economy in 2000). Then, subsequent growth in GDP is
adjusted to remove the impact of inflation in average prices since the base year. That
adjusted measure of changes in real GDP is intended to be an accurate indicator of
changes in the true quantity of total output. The base year for real GDP data is usually
updated every few years. And modern GDP accounts use a “chain price” methodology in
which the underlying price index is adjusted slightly each year to account for
technological changes in the nature and quality of production.
Gross Domestic Product, Deflator: A price index which reflects the average increase in
the prices of all domestic output. The GDP deflator equals the ratio of nominal GDP to
real GDP. The GDP deflator is an alternative measure of inflation (although changes in
the consumer price index are considered a more accurate indicator of “true” inflation than
changes in the GDP deflator). GDP deflators can be calculated for each category of
expenditure in total GDP (including consumption, investment, exports, and imports).
Gross Domestic Product, Per Capita: This is the level of GDP divided by the
population of a country or region. Changes in real GDP per capita over time are often
interpreted as a measure of changes in the average standard of living of a country,
although this is misleading (because it doesn’t account for differences in the distribution
of income across factors of production and individuals, and it doesn’t consider the value
of unpaid labour or leisure time).
Obtaining GDP Statistics
GDP statistics are among the most important and closely-watched economic indicators.
GDP data is published as part of a broader set of statistical data, usually called the
“national accounts.” These are usually produced on a quarterly basis (that is, every three
months) – although in some cases more specific industry-level data is produced monthly.
GDP statistics are prepared and published by national statistical agencies in each country.
In most cases, electronic versions of the data can be downloaded without charge. Here
are the links to GDP data in the major Anglo-Saxon economies:
U.S.: GDP data is produced by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, www.bea.gov.
Follow the links through the “National” menu category to “Gross Domestic Product.”
That section presents several options for accessing the most recent GDP data release,
historical data, and background detail.
U.K.: GDP data is produced by the U.K. Statistics Authority, www.statistics.gov.uk.
Follow the links through “Key statistics” to “GDP.” Then several options are presented
for obtaining summary, detailed, and time series data.
Canada: GDP data is produced by Statistics Canada, at www.statscan.ca. Follow the
links to statistics “By subject,” then choose “Economic accounts.” Choices are available
there to directly attain summary data, or else to download detailed quarterly reports.
Historical time series data is available for a fee (or can usually be attained for free
through a public or university library).
Australia: GDP data is produced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, at
www.abs.gov.au. Under “National Statistics,” choose “National Accounts.” There links
direct the user to specific publications (including the main quarterly Australian National
Accounts publication) and more detailed data.
GDP Accounting: Basic Concepts
Chapter 10 of Economics for Everyone explains how the basic cycle of investment,
production, distribution, and consumption that typifies capitalism can be measured, in
two distinct ways. The total output of the economy can be added up in terms of the
different categories of income that are paid out (in that case, wages and profits). Or it can
be added up in terms of the different categories of expenditure that subsequently arise
from that income (in Chapter 10, this consists solely of investment and consumption –
including both workers’ consumption and capitalists’ luxury consumption; see Table 10.1
on p. 125).
These two approaches to measuring the total output of the economy are reflected in the
two main approaches to GDP statistics. In most countries, estimates of GDP are attained
broken down according to both income and expenditure. By definition, the GDP
accountants always ensure that total output equals income equals expenditure – that is,
everything that is produced in the economy has to be “bought” by someone, and hence
the revenue resulting from production must to be “paid” to someone.
In Chapter 23 of Economics for Everyone, we made the story a little more realistic (and
complicated) by adding the government and foreign sectors of the economy. Now there
are two additional forms of spending: spending on government production (that is, goods
and services produced directly by public agencies), and spending on net exports (that is,
the value of exports bought by foreigners, less the value of imports purchased by
residents of our home economy1). We also explained how government attains its revenue
(by imposing taxes on both workers and capitalists). However, since those taxes show up
as revenue for the government sector, but are deducted from the income of workers and
capitalists, they don’t affect the total level of GDP – which remains equal to the sum of
the “primary” incomes accruing to the two major factors of production in our simplified
economy (workers and capitalists). This is explained in Table 23.1, on page 285.
To sum up, there are two ways to add up the total value of GDP:
By Income (the different forms of income received by primary factors of production):
GDP = wages plus profits
GDP = W + Π
By Expenditure (the different ways that our output is “bought”):
GDP = consumption + investment + government production + net exports
GDP = C + I + G + (X – M)
GDP Statistics in the Real World
The real-world economy is more complicated than the one described in Economics for
Everyone – even the more complete “circle” described in Chapter 23. Here is a
1 We include only net exports – that is, total exports less the value of imports – for the following reason.
Some of what consumers spend on C, companies spend on I, and governments spend on G is allocated to
imported goods and services; so it doesn’t actually add to domestic GDP. This “drain” resulting from
imports, is counterposed to the incremental spending on domestically-made goods and services which
arises from foreign purchases of our exports. Trade therefore adds to GDP if exports are larger than
imports; it reduces GDP if imports are greater than exports.
breakdown and short description of the major income and expenditure categories that are
typically included in actual GDP reports:
GDP by Expenditure:
Personal Consumption: This is the largest single category of expenditure, accounting
for over half of GDP in most countries. Consumption spending may be broken down into
goods (including both durable goods, like cars and appliances, and non-durable goods
like food and clothing) and services.
Business Investment: This is a smaller but very important component of GDP, since it
is the motive force that initiates production and employment in a capitalist economy.
Usually investment data is broken down into several categories. First, the data
distinguishes between fixed investment and inventories. Fixed investment represents
spending on tangible, long-lasting capital assets. The accumulation of inventories
(including unsold products, raw materials, supplies, and partly finished goods) is also
considered an “investment” by the businesses which own those inventories.2 It is less
important to longer-run economic progress, however, than fixed investment. Within
fixed investment, there are several main categories. Residential investment represents the
cost of constructing new homes; these are considered a “capital” asset because they last a
long time. Non-residential fixed investment represents capital spending on actual
business operations. It, in turn, is divided between non-residential structures (factories,
offices, shops, mines, etc.) and machinery and equipment. Machinery and equipment
investment (including computers, factory machinery, transportation equipment, and other
high-tech assets) is considered to be especially important to technological change and
Government Consumption: Government transfer payments do not show up in the GDP
accounts, because they merely represent the redistribution of income from one group of
residents (taxpayers) to another group (recipients of transfer payments). Similarly,
government interest payments are also a transfer of income, not an expenditure on
specific output. The direct government provision of goods and services, however, does
enter the GDP accounts as an important form of expenditure. GDP accounts call this
“government consumption,” making an analogy with personal consumption: government
consumption represents the use of current production for some end goal (education,
health care, military, etc.). 3
2 For GDP accounting purposes, a business is considered to have “bought” an item in its inventory, even if
it is there because it couldn’t sell the product to a customer. This is one of the ways that GDP accountants
ensure that income always equal expenditure. When unsold output piles up (because of weaker-than-
expected sales), this is captured in an increase in inventories. This is often an early sign of coming
economic weakness or recession.
3 Note that in Chapter 20 of Economics for Everyone, we described the real production of goods and
services in the public or non-profit sphere of the economy as “government production.” This differs subtly
from the measurement of “government consumption” in GDP accounting. Government production
represents actual production services in order to directly deliver some good or service (usually a service) to
residents. Government consumption (for GDP purposes) is a somewhat larger category: it will include
Government Investment: Not all government spending on programs, however, counts
as “consumption.” When governments spend money on long-lasting assets that will have
a productive life (including schools, hospitals, other public buildings, and infrastructure
like highways and sewer systems), this constitutes an investment and is usually measured
separately in the GDP accounts. Total investment in an economy therefore equals
residential investment, non-residential business investment, and government investment.
Exports: Some domestic output is purchased by final customers located in other
countries. This includes both goods (such as resources or manufactured products) and
services (eg. tourism, financial services, or transportation). This expenditure by
foreigners represents an increment to domestic output.
Imports: By the same token, some of the purchases made by customers in our own
economy are directed to goods and services that are produced elsewhere. This also
includes both goods and services. Imports are deducted from domestic GDP (since they
represent an expenditure by domestic residents on something other than domestically
GDP by Income:
Labour Income: The compensation received by all paid employees (including wages,
salaries, and the current cost of employment benefits such as health benefits, insurance,
and pensions) is lumped into the catch-all category of labour income. In developed
capitalist countries, labour income accounts for about half of all GDP. Note that any
income resulting from an employment relationship shows up in this category – including
the salaries received by top executives and professionals.4 Unfortunately, therefore, the
labour income category of total GDP does not provide a truly accurate picture of the
income received by workers – nor can this aggregate data provide any insight into how
labour income is distributed across different groups of workers. Nevertheless,
monitoring labour’s share of total GDP is a handy, composite indicator of workers’
general structural power in a society. Under neoliberalism, the labour share of GDP has
fallen notably in most developed capitalist economies.
Corporate Profits: Like other categories of factor income, corporate profits are
measured before income taxes. This represents the bottom-line income received by
larger, incorporated businesses. In some countries, the income of government-owned
corporations is reported separately from the income of private corporations.
Small Business and Farm Profits: Many smaller businesses (including many farms) are
not incorporated as separate legal entities. The income of these operations is received
directly by their proprietors, and hence is reported separately in the GDP accounts. As
goods and services purchased (or procured) from private firms as part of governments’ broader service
4 Stock options and other equity-based income attained by top executives do not show up in this category,
however, since they technically represent forms of investment income, not employment compensation.
discussed on pp. 67-69 of Economics for Everyone, most of this income of small
proprietors reflects their own work effort (and often the labour of family members, as
well), rather than a return to the “capital” which these proprietors have invested in their
Investment Income: As a result of today’s sophisticated financial system, much
business wealth is not owned directly, but rather is held via one of many different forms
of financial asset (stocks, bonds, derivatives, and other types of asset). The function and
effects of these different forms of financial wealth are discussed in detail in Chapter 18 of
Economics for Everyone. The income generated by these assets to their individual
owners is recorded in the GDP accounts as investment income. Because of the startling
concentration of financial wealth in the hands of the richest minority of society (see pp.
90-94 of Economics for Everyone), the bulk of this income is received by very high-
wealth individuals and households.
Depreciation: GDP by income accounts make an allowance for the wear and tear of the
economy’s existing stock of capital. In essence, we are assuming that we have to “pay” a
certain portion of our output to the existing stock of capital, in order to recognize its
limited lifespan. Depreciation is sometimes called a “capital consumption allowance.”
This “payment” is then recorded in the GDP accounts alongside the payments made to
other groups in society (workers, investors, capitalists, etc.). In reality, however, the
income represented by depreciation is actually received by the owners of that existing
capital: it is deducted from their revenue prior to the calculation of corporate profit.
Indirect Taxes and Subsidies: We noted above that the incomes received by all the
different groups in society are recorded in the GDP accounts before deducting the income
taxes that they pay to government. There is one exception, however, reflecting tax
income that governments seem to “earn” from the direct process of production. Recall
that GDP equals the market or money value of all the output in the economy. One
component of that money value is the net cost of taxes and subsidies which government
may impose on specific industries or products. Most important among these are sales or
value-added taxes levied on many goods and services. But this entry also includes taxes
(net of subsidies) imposed on factors of production (such as business subsidies).
Statistical Discrepancy: Try as they will, the GDP accountants never manage to make
the GDP by expenditure tally coincide perfectly with GDP by income, and hence they
include a small balancing item in one or both accounts to ensure equality between the two
Analyzing GDP Data
GDP statistics can be useful for many different applications. Keep in mind the various
drawbacks of GDP that we identified on pages 25-29 of Economics for Everyone: GDP
does not consider the value of non-monetary work and output, including caring labour in
the home; it doesn’t put a value on the natural environment, leisure time, or the quality of
life; and aggregate GDP statistics say nothing about how the output of the economy is
distributed across different groups in society. Nevertheless, GDP data provides an
important and informative snapshot into the behaviour and performance of the overall
economy. Here are a few applications:
Measuring or Comparing Growth: The rate of expansion of real GDP is usually
interpreted as the most important measure of economic growth. A recession occurs when
real GDP shrinks (usually, for at least two quarters in a row). A recovery is said to begin
when real GDP starts growing again.
Measuring or Comparing Prosperity: The level of GDP per capita is often interpreted
as an indicator of overall average “prosperity” (either over time, or across countries).
This application must be conducted with particular care, taking note of the weaknesses of
the GDP concept noted above. (For example, an economy which values leisure time
more than material consumption will be seen, in this approach, to be “less prosperous” –
but that is only because leisure time is not considered in aggregate GDP statistics).
Measuring or Comparing Distribution: Changes in the relative shares of different
groups in total income in an economy over time, can provide a useful indicator of
changes in their relative political and economic power. These comparisons can also be
made across countries (although differences in the methodology utilized by various
statistical agencies make cross-national comparisons of factor shares a bit tricky).
The Composition of Output: An economy that spends more on investment and less on
consumption will generally be interpreted as engaging in a more dynamic, aggressive
form of economic development. An economy with a larger government sector is usually
one in which citizens enjoy a greater degree of social security and equality. Many
countries produce GDP data disaggregated into industrial or sectoral sub-categories; this
can also provide valuable insight into the changing composition of an economy (for
example, the changing balances between agriculture, manufacturing, and services).
Concepts Related to GDP:
GDP is the most important aggregate variable attained from national accounts data, but
there are other important concepts that can also be measured and analyzed. Here are a
Gross National Product (GNP): GDP measures the total value of output produced for
money within a given economy. It is the best measure of the level of activity in any
particular economy. GNP is a slightly different, but closely related, concept: it measures
the total value of output that is “owned” by the residents of a particular nation. To go
from GDP to GNP, we must first deduct from GDP a proportional value reflecting the
ownership over a certain share of domestic output by non-residents of our home
economy. The most important adjustment here is to deduct the share of corporate profits
and investment income that accrues to people who don’t live here. Then, by the same
token, we have to add in the proportional value of goods and services that are produced in
other countries, but owned by residents of our home country. The most important
adjustment here is the profits and investment income accruing to residents of our country
from their foreign investments (both foreign direct investment, and financial investments)
in other countries. For a country which is a net creditor in foreign investment (that is, its
residents own more investments abroad, than the value of incoming foreign investments
in the home country), GNP is slightly greater than GDP. The opposite is true for
countries which are net debtors in foreign investment.
Net Domestic Product: Recall that one component of GDP by income is an allowance
for the depreciation of existing capital assets. In one sense, that value can be interpreted
as a “cost of production.” If the goal of production is the output of final goods and
services, then it might make sense to deduct the amount of output which has to be set
aside merely to replace the wear and tear of existing capital (ie “tools”). Net domestic
product, therefore, equals GDP minus the cost of depreciation. It’s important to
remember, however, that the money “set aside” for depreciation actually establishes a
fund not to replace that specific equipment – but to buy newer, more advanced
machinery, which always embodies qualitative improvements. In that regard, I believe
that it is gross investment (and hence gross domestic product, not net domestic product)
which provides the more relevant indicator of total investment and the total value of
Personal Income: Most individuals receive most of their income from their employment
effort (wages, salaries, and employee benefits). However, other forms of income are also
received by households. Government transfer payments provide an important
supplement to income for many. Some households receive investment income (although
for the vast majority of households, this income is small relative to other income
sources). The income from unincorporated businesses and farms also enters household
spending accounts. Total personal income represents the sum of all these forms of
household income; it indicates the total spending power available to households in the
economy. Personal disposable income then represents the income left over after personal
income taxes are paid to government.
Total Return to Capital: The overall income earned by workers in an economy is
approximated by the total value of labour income (although remember that “labour”
income also includes the salaries received by top executives). It’s harder to measure the
total income earned by the owners of capital. Some of that income, obviously, is
represented by the level of corporate profits. But there are other ways in which the
owners of capital also receive a share of the pie produced each year in the economy.
Depreciation is a payment to capital, as well: it is received by the owners of capital
(mostly companies), but deducted from corporate revenues in the calculation of profits
(since it represents the wear and tear on existing capital assets). Investment income
represents a payment to capital, as well, in which the individuals who own financial
assets capture a share of total profits. Finally, some of the income received by
unincorporated small businesses and farms also represents a payment to their invested
capital (although most of that income reflects their own, hard work).