We are all better off than we think

Apple’s iPhone5 has already smashed sales records.  The first day on which consumers could make purchases over the web, more than 2 million online orders were placed.  Little wonder that JP Morgan has estimated that sales of the iPhone5 could add as much as 0.5 per cent to American GDP.  These numbers have attracted criticism. If consumers simply buy iPhones instead of other products, it is hard to see how output could be boosted by such an amount.

But there is a powerful case to be made that, thanks to products like broadband and mobile phones, the growth rate of the American economy genuinely has been distinctly higher than the conventional estimates suggest. Since 1992, the US economy has grown in real terms at an annual average rate of 2.6 per cent.   This figure could easily be 3.5 to 4.0 per cent.

The reason is the massive waves of technological innovation which have taken place.  The quality of the products which have become available has grown dramatically.  Smart phones, for example, have more computing power than many mainframes of the 1970s.  But how do we measure this increase in quality?

This is a very difficult problem for the Bureau of Economic Affairs (BEA) in America and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in the UK.  The information they gather when they estimate GDP is based on information about the money value of what is being bought and sold.  So they have to deduct the part of any change which is simply due to prices changing. This then gives what it is known as ‘real’ GDP.

It is real GDP which gets the headlines, and it is real GDP which matters for how better off people are.  If the BEA or ONS are trying to estimate real Marmite output, say, the problem is easy.  Here is a product which has basically remained unchanged for generations.  Any change in its price is straightforward to interpret.  But a smart phone?  Just a few years ago, the product did not exist at all.   Even a new release in a product may represent a big increase in quality compared to previous versions.

In markets where innovation is rapid, we are simply not comparing like with like.  With a completely new product, top US econometrician Jerry Hausman at MIT has used the idea that a way of estimating the change in its price from the previous period is to assume that the price was then so colossally high that no-one bought it at all!  So the implicit drop in price this period is huge.

As a consequence, inflation has been systematically over-estimated and real GDP under-estimated.    Real GDP growth rates can easily have been 1 per cent higher a year than the standard estimates suggest.


by Paul Ormerod

As published in City AM on Wednesday 19th September

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e: aobyrne@volterra.co.uk
t: +44 020 8878 6333

Alex O’Byrne, Associate at Volterra, is an experienced economic consultant specialising in economic, health and social impact, economic strategy, project appraisal and socio-economic planning matters.

Alex has led the socio-economic and health assessments of some of the most high profile developments across the UK, including Battersea Power Station, Olympia London, London Resort, MSG Sphere and Westfield. He has significant experience inputting to EIAs and s106 discussions as well as drafting economic statements, employment and skills strategies and affordable workspace strategies.

Alex is also experienced at economic appraisal for infrastructure. He was project manager of the economic appraisal for the City Centre to Mangere Light Rail in Auckland. He also led the economic and financial appraisals of the third tranche of the Transport Access Program for Transport for New South Wales, in which Alex developed and employed innovative methodological approaches to better capture benefits for individuals with reduced mobility.

He is interested in the limitations of current appraisal methodologies and ways of improving economic and health analysis to ensure it is accessible to as many people as possible. To this end, Alex recognises the importance of transparent and simple to understand analysis and ensuring all work is supported by a robust narrative.

Alex holds a BSc (Hons) in Economics from the University of Manchester and he was a member of the first cohort of the Mayor’s Infrastructure Young Professionals Panel.


Senior Partner

e: eevans@volterra.co.uk
t: +44 020 8878 6333

Ellie is a partner at Volterra, specialising in the economic impact of developments and proposals, and manages many of the company’s projects on economic impact, regeneration, transport and development.

With thirteen years experience at Volterra delivering high quality projects to clients across the public and private sector, Ellie has expertise in developing methods of estimating economic impact where complex issues exist with regards to deadweight, displacement and additionality.

Ellie has significant experience in estimating the economic impact across all types of property development including residential, leisure, office and mixed use schemes.

Project management of recent high profile schemes include the luxury hotel London Peninsula, Battersea Power Station and the Nova scheme at London Victoria. Ellie has also led studies across the country estimating the economic and regeneration impact of proposed transport investments, including studies on HS2 and Crossrail.

Ellie holds a degree in Mathematics and Economics from the University of Cambridge.