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What Does GDP Really Tell Us?

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To gain insight into the state of an economy, most financial experts and commentators rely on a statistic called the gross domestic product (GDP). The GDP framework looks at the value of final goods and services produced during a particular time interval, usually a quarter or a year.

This statistic is constructed in accordance with the view that what drives an economy is not the production of wealth but rather its consumption. What matters here is the demand for final goods and services. Since consumer outlays are the largest part of the overall demand, it is commonly held that consumer demand is the key driver of economic growth.

All that matters in this view is the demand for goods, which in turn will give rise almost immediately to their supply. This framework ignores the whole issue of the various stages of production that precede the emergence of the final good.

In the real world, it is not enough to have demand for goods—one must have the means to accommodate the demand. The means are various final consumer goods that are required to sustain various individuals in the various stages of production.

The key source for the means of sustenance is individuals’ real savings. For instance, John the baker produces ten loaves of bread and consumes two loaves of bread. The unconsumed eight loaves of bread constitute real savings. John the baker could exchange the saved eight loaves of bread for the services of a technician in order to improve his oven, i.e., the improvement of his infrastructure. With the help of an improved infrastructure, John could lift the production of bread—increase the economic growth. Note that the eight saved loaves of bread sustain the life and well-being of the technician while he is working to enhance the oven.

Observe that real savings is the determining factor as far as future economic growth is concerned. If a strengthening in economic growth requires a particular infrastructure while there is not enough real savings to make such an infrastructure—the desired strengthening in the economic growth is not going to emerge.

The GDP framework is hostile to savings given that in this framework more savings weakens consumption and weakens the so-called Keynesian multiplier. The GDP framework gives the impression that it is not the activities of individuals that produce goods and services, but something else outside these activities called the "economy." Yet, at no stage does the so-called economy have a life of its own independent of individuals. The so-called economy is a metaphor—it does not exist. 

By aggregating the values of final goods and services together, government statisticians concretize the fiction of an economy by means of the GDP statistic. But, the GDP framework cannot tell us whether final goods and services that were produced during a particular period of time are a reflection of real wealth expansion, or a reflection of capital consumption. 

For instance, if a government embarks on the construction of a pyramid, which adds nothing to the well-being of individuals, the GDP framework will regard this as a factor that contributes to economic growth. In reality, however, the building of the pyramid will divert real savings from wealth-generating activities, thereby stifling the production of wealth. 

GDP and the Real Economy—What Is the Relationship?

There are serious issues regarding the calculation of real gross domestic product (GDP). To calculate a total, several things must be added together. To add things together, they must have some unit in common. However, it is not possible to add refrigerators to cars and shirts to obtain the total of final goods. Since the total real output cannot be defined in a meaningful way, obviously it cannot be quantified. To overcome this problem, economists employ total monetary expenditure on goods, which they divide by an average price of those goods. There is, however, a serious problem with this.

Suppose two transactions were conducted. In the first transaction, one TV set is exchanged for $1,000. In the second transaction, one shirt is exchanged for $40. The price or the rate of exchange in the first transaction is $1000/1TV set. The price in the second transaction is $40/1shirt.

In order to calculate the average price, we must add these two ratios and divide them by 2. However, $1000/1TV set cannot be added to $40/1shirt, implying that it is not possible to establish an average price. On this Rothbard wrote in Man, Economy, and State,

Thus, any concept of average price level involves adding or multiplying quantities of completely different units of goods, such as butter, hats, sugar, etc., and is therefore meaningless and illegitimate.

The employment of various sophisticated methods to calculate the average price level cannot bypass the essential issue that it is not possible to establish an average price of various goods and services. Accordingly, various price indices that government statisticians compute are simply arbitrary numbers. If price deflators are meaningless so is the real GDP statistic.

Even government statisticians admit that the whole thing is not real. According to J. Steven Landefeld and Robert P. Parker from the Bureau of Economic Analysis,

In particular, it is important to recognize that real GDP is an analytic concept. Despite the name, real GDP is not "real" in the sense that it can, even in principle, be observed or collected directly, in the same sense that current-dollar GDP cannot in principle be observed or collected as the sum of actual spending on final goods and services in the economy. Quantities of apples and oranges can in principle be collected, but they cannot be added to obtain the total quantity of "fruit" output in the economy.1

Now, since it is not possible to quantitatively establish the status of the total of real goods and services, obviously various data like real GDP that government statisticians generate should not be taken too seriously. 

The whole idea of GDP gives the impression that there is such a thing as the national output. In a market economy, however, wealth is produced by individuals and belongs to them independently.

Goods and services are not produced in totality and supervised by one supreme leader. This in turn means that the entire concept of GDP is devoid of any basis in reality as far as the market economy is concerned. According to Mises in Human Action the whole idea that one can establish the value of the national output, or what is called the GDP, is somewhat farfetched:

The attempt to determine in money the wealth of a nation or the whole of mankind are as childish as the mystic efforts to solve the riddles of the universe by worrying about the dimension of the pyramid of Cheops.


If a business calculation values a supply of potatoes at $100, the idea is that it will be possible to sell it or replace it against this sum. If a whole entrepreneurial unit is estimated at $1,000,000 it means that one expects to sell it for this amount, the businessman can convert his property into money, but a nation cannot.

So what are we to make out of the periodical pronouncements that the economy, as depicted by real GDP, grew by a particular percentage? All we can say is that this percentage has nothing to do with real economic growth and that it most likely mirrors the pace of monetary pumping.

Since GDP is expressed in dollar terms, it is obvious that its fluctuations will be driven by the fluctuations in the amount of dollars pumped into the economy. From this, we can also infer that a strong real GDP growth rate most likely depicts a weakening in the process of real wealth formation.

Once it is realized that so called real economic growth, as depicted by real GDP, mirrors fluctuations in the money supply growth rate it becomes clear that an economic boom has nothing to do with real economic expansion.

On the contrary, such a boom is about real economic contraction since it undermines the pool of real wealth—the heart of real economic growth. (Note that boom is generated by the increase in the money supply growth rate, which gives rise to various bubble activities that undermine the process of wealth generation).

It is no wonder that in the GDP framework, the central bank can cause real economic growth, and most economists who slavishly follow this framework believe that this is so.

There is no shortage of so-called economic research designed to produce "scientific support" for popular views that, by means of monetary pumping, the central bank can grow the economy. It is however overlooked by all these studies that no other conclusion can be reached once it is realized that GDP is a close relative of the money stock. 


The real GDP growth rate does not measure the real strength of an economy but rather reflects monetary turnover adjusted by a dubious statistic called the price deflator. Obviously then the more money is pumped, all other things being equal, the stronger the economy appears to be.

In this framework of thinking one is not surprised that the Fed can "drive" the economy since by means of monetary pumping the central bank can influence the GDP growth rate. By means of the real GDP statistic Fed policy makers and government officials can create an illusion that they can grow the economy. In reality, the policy of intervention of the Fed and the government can only deepen the economic impoverishment by weakening wealth generators.

  • 1. J. Steven Landefeld and Robert P. Parker, "Preview of the Comprehensive Revision of the National Income and Product Accounts: BEA's New Featured Measures of Output and Prices," BEA Survey of Current Business, July 1995.

Contact Frank Shostak

Frank Shostak's consulting firm, Applied Austrian School Economics, provides in-depth assessments of financial markets and global economies. Contact: email.

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