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Real GDP Per Capita: Another Economic Perspective

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    August 30, 2012

    Earlier today we learned that the Second Estimate for Q2 real GDP came in at 1.7%, an increase from the Q2 Advance Estimate of 1.5%. Let’s now review the numbers on a per-capita basis.

    For an alternate historical view of the economy, here is a chart of real GDP per-capita growth since 1960. For this analysis I’ve chained in current dollars for the inflation adjustment. The per-capita calculation is based on quarterly aggregates of mid-month population estimates by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which date from 1959 (hence my 1960 starting date for this chart, even though quarterly GDP has is available since 1947). The population data is available in the FRED series POPTHM. The logarithmic vertical axis ensures that the highlighted contractions have the same relative scale.

    I’ve drawn an exponential regression through the data using the Excel -GROWTH() function to give us a sense of the historical trend. The regression all illustrates the fact that the trend since the Great Recession has a visibly lower slope than long-term trend. In fact, the current GDP per-capita is 10.2% below the regression trend.



    The real per-capita series gives us a better understanding of the depth and duration of GDP contractions. As we can see, since our 1960 starting point, the recession that began in December 2007 is associated with a deeper trough than previous contractions, which perhaps justifies its nickname as the Great Recession. In fact, at this point, 17 quarters beyond the 2007 GDP peak, real GDP per capita is still 1.82% off the all-time high following the deepest trough in the series.

    Here is a more revealing snapshot of real GDP per capita, specifically illustrating the percent off the most recent peak across time, with recessions highlighted. The underlying calculation is to show peaks at 0% on the right axis. The callouts shows the percent off real GDP per-capita at significant troughs as well as the current reading for this metric.



    Quarterly GDP Compounded Annual Rate of Change

    The standard measure of GDP in the US is expressed as the compounded annual rate of change from one quarter to the next. The current real GDP as of the Q2 Second Estimate is 1.7 percent. But with a per-capita adjustment, the data series is quite different. The real per-capita GDP is currently at 1.06 percent, which rounds up to the 1.1 percent, using the one decimal place convention. Both a 10-year moving average and the slope of a linear regression through the data show that the US economic growth has been slowing for decades.



    How do the two compare, GDP and GDP per capita? Here is an overlay of the two in the 21st century.



    To expand on the illustration above: Since 1960 mean (average) GDP is 3.1 percent. Mean GDP per capita is 2.0 percent.

    Year-Over-Year (YoY) GDP Percent Change and Recession Risk

    Economists and financial journalists vary widely in their opinions about the present-day level of recession risk. The official call on recessions, of course, is the domain of the National Bureau of Economic Analysis, which makes the determination on recession start and end several months — sometimes more than a year — after the fact.

    GDP per capita, as we’ve seen, is a weaker series than GDP. What does it suggest about our current recession risk? The next chart shows the YoY change in real GDP per capita since 1960. I’ve again highlighted recessions. The red dots show the YoY real GDP for the quarter before the recession began, and the dotted line gives us a sense of how the current level compares to recession starts since 1960. This chart suggests that, despite the obvious weakness in the economy, there is no imminent recession risk. That said, we must remember that GDP is a lagging indicator of the economy, and next year’s annual GDP revisions could change the latest data points.



    As the chart illustrates, the latest YoY real GDP per capita, at 1.53% is higher than the level at the onset of all the recessions in this series with one exception — the second and more painful half of the early 1980’s double dip. That recession was a outlier in that it was to some extent knowingly engineered by the Fed (then Chairman Paul Volcker), an inevitable side-effect of raising the Fed Funds Rate north of 19% to break the back of the stagflation of the era. Here is a snapshot that illustrates the extreme Fed maneuver.



    I’ll update these charts next month, when the Third Estimate of Q2 GDP is released.


    Images: Flickr (licence attribution)

    About The Author

    My original dshort.com website was launched in February 2005 using a domain name based on my real name, Doug Short. I’m a formerly retired first wave boomer with a Ph.D. in English from Duke. Now my website has been acquired byAdvisor Perspectives, where I have been appointed the Vice President of Research.

    My first career was a faculty position at North Carolina State University, where I achieved the rank of Full Professor in 1983. During the early ’80s I got hooked on academic uses of microcomputers for research and instruction. In 1983, I co-directed the Sixth International Conference on Computers and the Humanities. An IBM executive who attended the conference made me a job offer I couldn’t refuse.

    Thus began my new career as a Higher Education Consultant for IBM — an ambassador for Information Technology to major universities around the country. After 12 years with Big Blue, I grew tired of the constant travel and left for a series of IT management positions in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. I concluded my IT career managing the group responsible for email and research databases at GlaxoSmithKline until my retirement in 2006.

    Contrary to what many visitors assume based on my last name, I’m not a bearish short seller. It’s true that some of my content has been a bit pessimistic in recent years. But I believe this is a result of economic realities and not a personal bias. For the record, my efforts to educate others about bear markets date from November 2007, as this Motley Fool article attests.