|TUESDAY, DECEMBER 7, 1999
||CONTACT: AUDREY CHOI
STATEMENT BY MARTIN N. BAILY
(as prepared for
CHAIRMAN, COUNCIL OF ECONOMIC ADVISERS
NATIONAL PRODUCT ACCOUNTS
It is a great pleasure to be here today and to say a few words
about the meaning and importance of the GDP data and the National Income and
Product Accounts. I would like to make some personal observations, based on the
ways in which these data have been important to my work.
I started my career as an academic researcher with a strong
interest in macroeconomics and it is hard to imagine how I or anyone else could
have talked about the U.S. economy and the business cycle without timely and
accurate information about GDPor GNP as we used back then. One issue that
I explored twenty years ago was the extent to which the economy has become more
stable over time.
I carried out a series of econometric tests examining the
response of consumption, investment and inventories to cyclical shocks. But it
turned out the most compelling evidence came from simply plotting the growth
rate of GNP over time. The resulting chart, subsequently reproduced in the New
York Times, showed a dramatic decrease in the volatility of GNP in the postwar
I argued, as I still believe, that sound and cautiously active
monetary and fiscal policy, together with automatic stabilizers, have been
important to the increased stability of the macroeconomy. Others have disagreed
as to whether policy is really stabilizing and even whether the economy has
become more stable. But of course this debate would not have been possible
without good historical GNP data.
More recently I, along with a team of researchers, have worked
on a number of studies trying to understand the differences in productivity
across countries. This work has been based on the scrutiny of very detailed,
micro-level firm and industry data. But each study began with an aggregate
analysis that featured GDP per capita as the best overall measure of economic
performance across countries. We selected industries to study largely on the
basis of whether they would add to our understanding of cross-country GDP per
capita differences. By starting with a micro data base and building up to tell
a macro GDP level story, I believe this work has added to understanding of the
reasons for economic performance differences across countries. It would not
have had the same impact or validity without good underlying GDP data.
A major task in my current position is to work with others in
preparing the Administrations forecast for budget purposes. GDP and its
growth over time are the centerpiece of this exercise. We recognize the
tremendous uncertainty in trying to predict GDP ten years into the future and
the need to make policy decisions which recognize that uncertainty. But we rely
on a solid starting point for our work - the GDP data prepared here at the
Department of Commerce.
Working with our forecast, however, makes me realize the need
for continued progress. Why was there a slowdown in productivity growth in
1973? Has the trend of productivity growth increased in the 1990s? How is the
digital revolution affecting businesses and consumers? Does the rise in the
stock market reflect an increase in intangible capital accumulation by
companies? These are tough questions, central to any forecast, and finding the
answers would be helped by better GDP data.
Major improvements have been madethe shift to chain
indexes, the use of better price indexes both by BEA and the Bureau of Labor
Statistics and the incorporation of software investment. But more needs to be
done to capture a rapidly changing economy where services account for much of
GDP, where the digital revolution is in full flight, and where quality changes
may be as important as quantity changes. If our statistical agencies are to
keep up with the demands of the economy they need to be adequately funded to
support the wealth of commitment and expertise of the people that work there.
My experience as an academic, as an economist in the private
profit-making sector and as a member of the Administration tells me that good
GDP data are vital to high-quality research, a greater understanding of the
U.S. economy, and, ultimately, to sound decision making.