Monday, July 22, 2013

The rise of the intangible economy: U.S. GDP counts R&D, artistic creation

On July 31, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis will rewrite history on a grand scale by restating the size and composition of the gross domestic product, all the way back to the first year it was recorded, 1929. The biggest change will be the reclassification—nay, the elevation—of research and development. R&D will no longer be treated as a mere expense, like the electricity bill or food for the company cafeteria. It will be categorized on the government’s books as an investment, akin to constructing a factory or digging a mine. In another victory for intellectual property, original works of art such as films, music, and books will be treated for the first time as long-lived assets.

The BEA has the 20th century economy down cold. It can tell you about personal income trends in Anchorage, Alaska, or America’s annual output of rubber products and plastics. Now the agency is putting more attention on R&D—the lifeblood of the 21st century economy—by moving it from an experimental “satellite” account into the heart of measured GDP.

GDP is the main yardstick of macroeconomics—the sum total of all goods and services produced in the country. Business R&D was never counted in that total. It was considered an expense, an “intermediate input,” that ate into profit. Intangible investments such as R&D and the creation of artistic originals have been like physicists’ dark matter: influential but invisible. As Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said in a 2011 speech, “We will be more likely to promote innovative activity if we are able to measure it more effectively and document its role in economic growth.”

The effect of the revision will be immediate. Measured GDP will get a one-time boost of about 2.7 percent when the government starts counting R&D and artistic creation as investments. (New Mexico and Maryland will get the biggest lifts.) The future growth rate will probably be fractionally higher, too. With R&D treated as an investment, measured economic growth from 1959 to 2007 would have been 3.39 percent annually instead of 3.32 percent, the BEA estimates. Bloomberg Businessweek

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