The National Accounts are a huge intellectual achievement and an incredibly useful set of data, including GDP and its components. Chatting about the National Accounts with Economics Explored host Gene Tunny is fellow economist Dr Brendan Markey-Towler, author of the Substack newsletter Australian Economy Tracker. Brendan explains how the National Accounts help us track the current state of the economy as well as longer-term trends, such as shrinking manufacturing sectors and growing services sectors in many advanced economies.
You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.
Links relevant to the conversation
Brendan’s Australian Economy Tracker Newsletter
Brendan’s post discussed in this episode
Planet Money episode on Simon Kuznets
Australian Financial Review article (pay-walled, alas) which reported “Federal government business generated $1.7 billion in revenue for the big four accounting and consulting firms over the past five years – though the government has a different take on the contract value of that business.”
Transcript: ROI of education: how economists estimate it + US economic update – EP152
N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.
Gene Tunny 00:01
Coming up on Economics Explored.
Brendan Markey-Towler 00:04
So, that’s where we get the view that Australia is less and less a country that makes things and builds things. Construction, manufacturing declining as a share of GDP.
Gene Tunny 00:16
Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host, Gene Tunny. I’m a professional economist based in Brisbane, Australia, and I’m a former Australian Treasury official.
This is episode 153 on GDP and the National Accounts. What they are and why they matter.
Chatting about the national accounts with me this episode, is my good friend and fellow economist, Dr. Brendan Markey-Towler, who started a new sub stack newsletter, Australian Economy Tracker. Brendan explains how the national accounts help us track the current state of the economy, as well as longer term trends, such as shrinking manufacturing sectors and growing services sectors in many advanced economies.
In the show notes, you can find relevant links and any clarifications. Please send any comments or questions to email@example.com. I’d love to hear from you. I’ve been very grateful for all the comments on recent episodes. Your comments really helped me figure out the issues that you’re interested in, and the types of guests that you’re interested in hearing from. So, please keep the comments coming to me.
Right oh! Now for my conversation with Brendan Markey-Towler on the national accounts. Thanks to my audio engineer, Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Brendan Markey-Towler, welcome back to the program.
Brendan Markey-Towler 01:43
Gene, it’s always a pleasure to be here. Sorry, I’m a bit husky today, but I’ve bruised my throat. I’d like to pretend that it was under heroic circumstances, but it was not.
Gene Tunny 01:52
Okay, well, thanks for participating. I understand it’s not damaging your throat, you’re able to talk, you’ve been talking all day. And you’re still happy to talk.
Brendan Markey-Towler 02:01
I could talk under wet cement, mate. So, a bruised throat isn’t going to stop me.
Gene Tunny 02:07
Well, you know, now, you can get a job as a rugby league commentator, possibly?
Brendan Markey-Towler 02:14
That’s true. I’m more of a union man. Yeah, but I will go with league. That’s good.
Gene Tunny 02:18
Right oh, okay. So, the topic of today, national accounts, what it is, why it matters? You’ve started a sub stack and one of your first pieces that came out on the sub stack was on the national accounts. And you displayed a level of enthusiasm for the national accounts that is very rare. And it actually reminded me of just how marvelous the set of data – the national accounts are, and what a superb intellectual achievement.
So, going back to the work of Simon Kuznets, and Colin Clark, who, was it Stone as well, Richard Stone, who formulated the methodology financial accounts, and then it was like a system a toss by the UN. So, I think, what your note did was it really helped us; well, it really reminded me of just how impressive those national accounts are. So, could you just tell us first, what you were trying to do in that note? And what’s your sort of general take on the national accounts, please, Brendan? Why do you think they’re so important?
Brendan Markey-Towler 03:28
Partly to justify why I had no friends at school. Because I get excited about nerdy stuff like this. But look, when you actually know what the national accounts are, they’re extremely interesting. And what they really do is they aim to provide a snapshot of the activity within an economy over a set period of time. So, in Australia, and throughout almost the world, I’m not sure of any country that doesn’t do it this way. It gives you a snapshot of all the activity that went on in an economy over the previous quarter. And the central number that depicts that activity is the number that we call gross domestic product. And gross domestic product is a measure of how much wealth was added to the economy, how much production, how much activity, and under the three great categories production, exchange, and income, or earning. That’s what the national accounts do. And they add that up into a single number, GDP. And that tells you how much activity went on in the economy over that quarter.
Now, where it gets really interesting, is that number not alone would be kind of cool. And we talk about the GDP growth rate. That’s what we mean when you hear on the news that people say economic growth or the economy grew by, that’s what they meant that GDP number increasing or decreasing. But where it gets really interesting is that we approach GDP in three ways. And you can think of this as looking at the economy as the same thing, but from three different directions. And that changes the way that you interpret that number. So, we call these GDP I, or at least I call them GDP I, GDP O, and GDP E. That is, GDP expenditure, GDP income and GDP output.
And what those numbers are doing are adding up GDP, the activity in the economy, looking at that activity from one to three ways: as a production, as an expenditure, and as an income, right. So, if you think about it this way, when you go down and you buy something that’s dear to our heart, here in Queensland, you go down into buy your coffee, there’s three things going on, there’s three ways that they get that same transaction gets measured and add to GDP. From the expenditure side, the expenditure that you make, when you buy that coffee goes into GDP E, and we add all of those up together, and we get GDP. That expenditure becomes income from the perspective of the person behind the bar. And that gets added up into GDP income.
And there’s also an interesting concept of gross value add, which is how much value has been produced by that transaction. The way that we measure that in GDP O, is we take the value of the output that was sold and subtract the value of the inputs that went into it. And that by definition, that’s the value that was added.
So, that’s the three ways that we add up GDP and we get an interesting view of the economy from that. A little bit further breaking that down, obviously, you can break that down to the level of the individual transaction. But the you know, you don’t get a huge amount of information that you get so much information, you have no information. So, we categorize at a high level, these different activities to get a sense of what’s driving GDP. So, within GDP E, the expenditure, which is the most popular and most focused on of the national accounts measures of GDP, we break down expenditure by consumption, investment; in Australia, we break down by housing, as well, government expenditure, both consumption and investment, and net exports.
Gene Tunny 07:34
And by investment, we mean capital investment, we mean expenditure on capital goods. So, we mean, new housing developments, or we mean, new, non-residential buildings, new schools, new factories, new capital equipment that’s purchase.
Brendan Markey-Towler 07:55
That’s right. Yeah. So, in Australia, we call it gross fixed capital investment, which is at the addition to the capital stock of the country in the capital stock of the country is; in Australia, again, we trade a little, perhaps, oddly, that we add housing into that. But factories, equipment; we actually add intellectual property as well. So, science and technology research get added into that figure. And so that’s what we that’s, that’s the way that we break down the economy.
So, when we break down GDP E that way consumption, investment, government spending net exports, we get a sense of which sector of the demand side of the economy is pulling the economy along. Is it household consumption? Is it buying new houses or building new houses? Is it businesses investing? Is it government consuming, spending money? Or is it government investing? Or is it coming from the international sector? And that gives us a lot of information about the activity within a country, it also gives us information about what might be dragging economic growth as well. So, that’s expenditure.
Another really interesting measure, well, I mean they’re all interesting, but the second measure GDP O – GDP output, sometimes called GDP gross value add, gives us a sense more of the supply side of the economy.
So, expenditure gives us a view of what’s driving the economy on the demand side. GDP O gives us a view of what’s driving the supply side. So, we get GDP in Australia, broken down by industry. And that’s where it gets really interesting because we can see which industries are adding the most to GDP. So, that’s cool. We can say, oh, mining adding more? Or how much is mining adding to GDP and how much is it driving or dragging on GDP? Ditto for professional scientific and technical services is another one that we use, agriculture and fishing, public administration safety; how much are these sectors adding to GDP and how much are they dragging or driving GDP. And then finally, the GDP I number. This is typically not quite as informative as the others, which is kind of ironic because it’s the easiest to add up because we just look at the tax returns. GDP I, breaks down GDP by income. And in Australia, we do it by what we’d call the greatest states of Australian society. So, wage earners, non-financial corporations, financial corporations, and government. And we can get a view of who’s earning the income within GDP. How what of that GDP that’s expended and outputted. Where is the income from that activity accruing to? Is it accruing to wages? Is it accruing to company profits? If it’s an accruing company profits, is it occurring to financial or non-financial companies? So, that’s some of the really interesting stuff that we get from GDP, it gives us this, really, especially in Australia, because our accounts are quite amazing.
Gene Tunny 11:05
Yeah, we’ve got some of the best in the world for sure.
Brendan Markey-Towler 11:09
They really are and we get a really rich view of what’s driving and dragging the Australian economy. What’s creating the wealth in our economy and what’s potentially dragging on the wealth of our economy. And kind of, we get a sense as well, where it’s going.
Gene Tunny 11:26
Okay, so the few things I want to talk about there, Brendan. Okay, so you mentioned that GDP; well, is it an approximation of the addition to wealth? Let me think about this. I mean, part of it is in addition to wealth, to the extent that you’re increasing the capital stock, but then part of it is consumed, and then part of the investment is consumption of fixed capital. So, I mean, it’s national income really, isn’t it? I mean, it’s related to wealth. Yes. So, it’s certainly related to that. It gives us a picture of our national income. I think national income was the original term for it, wasn’t it?
Brendan Markey-Towler 12:11
Yes, although national income gets a little trickier because the we focus on GDP, because it’s really limited to the geographical definition of the country. And that distinction was made early on in the development of the methodology, because national income is a bit fuzzier because it’s typically added up by nationals, rather than by where the activity occurred. So, that’s why the classic example that we give in an economics course, is that national income for a country like Luxembourg is, I think, Ireland, sorry. National income for a country like Ireland is actually much higher than its GDP, because a lot of its nationals live overseas. So, there’s few distinctions that we make within it. But really, what it’s giving you is a view of the activity that’s occurred in the economy, the economy being that system of human behavior, why we produce and exchange stuff that we need for everyday life. And so obviously, that adds to the stock of wealth in the economy, because some of that gets consumed and taken out and other elements of it gets allocated to the national wealth.
So, yeah, it’s a flow metric in the classic distinction between stocks and flows. It a reflection of the consumption and investment activity in an economy during a particular period.
Gene Tunny 13:40
Yes, it was developed during, well; the need for it became obvious during the 30s, when they were trying to quantify the extent of the Great Depression, I think Kuznets produced a report for the US federal government that strangely became a best seller. I mean, it was the first time someone had produced numbers like this. There’s a great planet money episode on that. I’ll try and find it and link to it in the show notes.
Brendan Markey-Towler 14:09
Well, that’s a good point, right? Because before then everyone kind of knew when times were good, or times were bad. And so, you could tell there were panics and manias and crashes as Charles Kindleberger famously said, but before the national accounts were developed, we never really were able to quantify what that was. And a lot of this was crystallized by John Maynard Keynes, his famous book, The General Theory of Interest, money and employment. I’ve got that wrong, interest money I think I got three. I’m one of the few in my in my generation, I think who actually read the book, which is, which is why it’s embarrassing I can’t remember the name because we always refer to it as the general theory. And what Keynes was trying to do there was give a theory of why we experienced these manias, panics and crashes, you know, boom and bust. And the problem was that when he wrote it, he was dealing with a lot of abstract thoughts and that needed to be measured. And I’ll actually give a little plug here for our home state of Queensland because Queensland was at the forefront of this, currently the building out at UQ, which houses the School of Economics, the University of Queensland, the School of Economics there is housed in the Colin Clark building, which is kind of ironic because Colin Clark didn’t become an academic at UQ until much later in life, I think around the 1980s. But Colin Clark was at the forefront of developing the methodology, not only for what the national accounts are, but how you actually design the surveys that add up those numbers and find out what the numbers are.
Gene Tunny 15:49
And he’s quoted in Keynes’s book because Keynes used his estimates of consumption spending for Great Britain, if I remember correctly, in the general theory.
Brendan Markey-Towler 16:01
And it’s kind of funny. So, Colin Clark who came out here to Australia and did a tour of Australia and he was the hotshot wizkid political economist from Cambridge. And he met with all of the premiers because back in those days, we understood the constitution. So, the premiers were much more powerful than the prime minister. And when he came up here to Queensland, the premier at the time William Forgan Smith, which the alumni of UQ will know, is that is the main building at the University of Queensland. Kind of, a nice little coincidence. Forgan Smith basically said to him, look, do you want to come and be my adviser on all things economics? As Forgan Smith was a great reformer and trying to develop the Queensland economy, he needed to be able to measure the size of the Queensland economy: what was driving, what was dragging, what was causing development, what was dragging on development. And there’s a famous letter that Colin Clark writes back to Keynes to say, I’ve been offered a job to basically become the shadow premier of Queensland. I’m not going to turn that down. And Keynes, I think said something to the effect of where is Queensland. So, then, Colin Clark came out, join the Queensland Statistical Bureau and, he was instrumental in the development of the national accounts and as a point to why the national accounts are so important. While Colin Clark was doing that, he’s obviously thinking about what goes into an economy? What is an economy? What exactly does it mean to say an economy? Because when you actually; we all kind of know what it is, is the economy stupid?
Gene Tunny 17:44
It’s an abstraction, isn’t it?
Brendan Markey-Towler 17:47
But it is an abstraction. And so, he had to think about, Okay, what does it actually mean? What is an economy, what counts as economic activity? And this is becoming very pertinent again, in these days, where we’re talking about things like Facebook and Amazon and Google where a lot of the activity that goes on there, we sort of think of as economic but it doesn’t measure it. But what happens as a result of Colin Clark thinking through these questions, is he’s starting to develop views of how economic development occurs. So, he ends up writing a large book, which sort of became a classic and development economics on how economies develop, what the basis for economic development are, what the settings for economic policy should be to encourage development. Particularly important question here in Queensland, which was a quite underdeveloped economy at the time.
And as a result, he became a very close adviser to Bob Santamaria, who those diehard fans of Australian politics will know was instrumental in the foundation of the Democratic Labor Party. So, this is the guy who invented a lot of the methodology behind the national accounts. So, when you understand something at that level, when you understand what an economy is, when you know how to measure it, imperfect as that measure may be, you get really rich insights into how an economy is tracking over time. And you get really rich insights as a result that develop over a long period of time of working with these things of what drives economic growth. You can situate those numbers in a history that tells you why the economy is growing, or why it’s not.
Gene Tunny 19:32
Yeah. Where do you get that Colin Clark story from? Is that in that book you keep talking about by, was it Millmow?.
Brendan Markey-Towler 19:38
Yeah. Alex Millmow, A History of Australasian Economics Thought. I think that’s where I got it from. Yes, it is where I got it from. It’s a really good book because Alex points out that a lot of Australia’s economic contributions to economic thought came from really practical questions like this. How do we measure?
Gene Tunny 19:57
Absolutely. Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.
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Gene Tunny 20:36
Now back to the show. Okay, now, I did want to go back to the point you made about the difficulty of well, the issues around the modern economy and the India head, etcetera. There was a great lecture that John Quiggin, who’s a professor at UQ. And if any Australian economist is going to win a Nobel Prize, it’d be John. I mean, he’s one of the most cited academic economists that Australia has. I mean, maybe, Warrick McKibben could win one. So, but yeah, certainly, John is;
Brendan Markey-Towler 21:11
I always like for John Foster personally.,
Gene Tunny 21:15
Well, John Quiggin, is incredibly distinguished economist and his view at the this lecture he gave was that the problem with GDP is that it’s gross, its domestic and its product. Okay, so we’ve already talked about the domestic issue. So, the fact that you could have a lot of production, but if all your incomes remitted overseas, okay, because it’s just foreign mining companies producing and sending profits home, and then you may not see all of that benefit. But the point he was making is it because its product, and it’s measured at market prices, what you could be missing out on is consumer surplus, you’re not necessarily measuring the benefit to consumers, because all of these products are provided for, well, a lot of them for free. But yet, the foreign company makes money out of you in some other ways, because it’s monetizing your attention, isn’t it?
Brendan Markey-Towler 22:11
Yeah. And so, this is a debate that’s been really reopened, it’s been a perennial debate in economics, and there’s a lot of interesting ideas floating around, inspired by it, which is that when we talked about, you know, how GDP is added up, we talked about the exchange, okay. But the only way that we really observe and exchange is by the exchange of money, right? So, the price multiplied by the quantity of goods or services sold. Now, the problem merges; what happens in a world full of freemium models? What happens in a world where the price of a Facebook membership is zero? That sort of kind of, well, I don’t particularly like Facebook. So, you know, I would challenge just how much consumer surplus is creating, but there’s, you know, many people would argue that there is a value added.
Gene Tunny 23:11
I think TikTok is creating the most at the moment. Especially among the younger generation..
Brendan Markey-Towler 23:16
Massively, yeah. the only thing that shows up in the national accounts from Facebook, Google, TikTok, Instagram, is the data sales. That’s the only thing that shows up in the national accounts. I mean, apart from the marketplace exchanges that go on as well in the Facebook marketplace, and so on like that. But really, it’s ultimately the advertising for Google the sales of data from all of them. That’s the only thing that shows up in the national accounts. So, but there’s more than that, as well. Another problem, And Peter Thiel has recently raised this issue.
Gene Tunny 23:53
Oh, the billionaire? Right.
Brendan Markey-Towler 23:57
The chap who founded PayPal, he thinks that we’ve actually had no economic growth or very little economic growth in the past 70 years. And the reason he says that is because he contends that what is observed as economic growth in the past 70 years, is actually just us bringing production and exchange; valuable production exchange that used to happen in the home, into markets. So, cooking, cleaning, keeping the house in order, gardening; all this stuff gets done on marketplaces, rather than in the home. And that’s a bias in GDP. It doesn’t measure that stuff because it’s not on a marketplace. It can’t be observed. So, that’s another argument.
You know that GDP doesn’t measure the actual value that’s being created. Now, the problem ultimately is, this goes back to a problem of micro economic theory, which is what is utility? And what is consumer surplus? And actually, from my perspective, why I ultimately say, look, let’s stick with GDP. It’s the worst measure we have, except for all the other things. Some countries have toyed with measuring gross national happiness. You know, New Zealand is toying with that at the moment, Bhutan famously measured it. The UN uses the Human Development Index, which is a weighting of GDP per capita literacy rates and life expectancy, I think.
Gene Tunny 25:31
All of which are highly correlated, aren’t those?
Brendan Markey-Towler 25:33
Yeah, and so, that was a March Ascends Brainchild, Jagdish Bhagwati famously said, well, yeah, they’re correlated. So, what are we talking about here? So, all those debates over replacing GDP ultimately, were reduced to a deep, deep philosophical problem, which economists are not well placed to solve, which is, what is value? What is good, what is true, what is beautiful? And I got some views on that. But as an economist, I ain’t got nothing to say about that. And so, when economists start dabbling in it, you kind of go, I used to be a fan of the happiness literature. But now I read and go, ah, this is, you know, it’s very simplistic. We’re going to use subjective wellbeing measures to add up Gross National Happiness. Okay, fine, that’s a really subjective and not very tangible measure. Whereas I can look out the window and see the cranes on the skyline here in Brisbane and see that’s an objective, measurable thing.
Gene Tunny 26:37
Well, it stood the test of time, hasn’t it? So, we’ve been using it for decades now. And there’s a general feeling that it does capture the state of the economy reasonably well. I mean, there are going to be people who grumble about it from time to time, but generally well, in Australia, at least when we had the recession, I mean, I always remember the 91 recession, because I was in high school at the time. And like, things just look bleak for anyone who was in high school and wanted to get a job. But then that was the period when retention rates at high school really ramped up. So, it was it was telling us something important there and it tends to; like it could give false signals, there’s a big debate at the moment over what’s happening in the US. But then look, the economy’s looks like it is slowing to an extent. There’s the impact of the Federal Reserve hikes. So, let’s wait and see how it all plays out. I mean, my feeling is, it’s generally a pretty good indicator of the state of the economy.
Brendan Markey-Towler 27:38
I look bad, I’m a Queenslander first, Australian second, and as a result, I do have a bias which is towards tangible reality. Right, feelings are very ephemeral. And feelings are important, right? They are very important, but they’re really difficult to measure. And they’re very subjective, and they can be easily manipulated. Now, GDP can be manipulated as well, depending on how you count things up. But at the end of the day, it’s stuff that’s being produced stuff that’s being consumed. And it’s tangible, observable goods and services. So, insofar as I really have a criticism of GDP, my major criticism is that it really; I agree with Peter Thiel largely, biases us away from realizing the value that is produced in a house.
And look, I’ve got a young, I’ve got a four-month-old son now so and my wife is at home, taking care of that. And I tell you what, that is incredibly mind blowing valuable work that she’s doing; doesn’t show up anywhere in GDP. Now, that doesn’t negate GDP. Because I think the solution to that is really, let’s just realize what GDP is actually measuring. Now, that does work in a political debate, because in politics and the way that the media works, you need a number and you need that number to be growing, otherwise, elections get lost, and so on and so forth. But when you’re, you know, when you’re doing grown up analysis instead of politics, I think the solution is to look at what GDP is actually measuring. It’s not a measure of value and if you think of it that way, then you’re wrong. Stop thinking of it like that. Think of it as it’s a measure of the production of stuff and the exchange of stuff within the economy, within the market that we can observe. Don’t try and start thinking about as a measure of all of the economic activity that ever happens in an economy. Just recognize the limitations, it doesn’t measure this stuff that goes on the household and that’s incredibly important.
Gene Tunny 29:51
Yeah, fair enough. That’s a good point. I’ll have to come in another episode to this issue of what’s in GDP? What’s out? What does it all mean? I’ll try and have that discussion in a future episode because there is a couple of other things I wanted to pick up on from your note; your note reminded me of a couple of things. And it’s the fact that this system is so beautiful, I mean, we end up getting from two different directions, possibly two different sets of data. I mean, we can look at what spend on consumption goods, final consumption goods, now, we have to be careful, we’re talking about final consumption goods and final investment goods, because what we’re trying to do is avoid double counting, we’re trying to get; because there are a lot of business to business transactions, businesses selling to other businesses inputs, so you have to take care of all that and make sure you’re not double counting title output, you want the expenditure on final goods and services.
So, if you look at that, that ends up telling you what GDP is, once you add exports, subtract imports, because, well, if you import something, then you don’t have to produce it here. So, there could be stuff that shows up a consumption spending or an investment spending that’s imported, and we didn’t produce it here. So, you have to subtract it. And likewise, if we’re exporting something, well, we produced it here, we know we produced it here, then that adds to our output. But then, you look at spending data, on the other hand, you can look at income data. So, you are saying, look at the wages data, look at the profits data. And yeah, I guess it is coming from the ITR. I’m not sure exactly where the IBS gets it from. But I mean, that’s a likely source. I do surveys of businesses.
I’d have to check exactly how much they’re using ATO data, but I know they do surveys of businesses to get that information. They’ve got a household expenditure survey, they’ve got surveys of, well I guess they got their business server; I’d be looking at what they spending on capital goods. Looking at what they’re earning. And so, they build up this picture of earnings that way, and also the gross value added in the business. Which as you described, is their revenue less their production costs, and wages are part of the value added to. So, wages plus the gross operating surplus, is your value added in the business?
Brendan Markey-Towler 32:21
Yeah, it’s a very slippery definition, because it’s not quite profits. But it’s, you know, the value of inputs minus the value of outputs. And that by definition has to be the value that is added by that business to the economy, insofar as we can measure it.
Gene Tunny 32:35
This is because we’re talking about gross domestic product. So, we haven’t subtracted for the depreciation of capital stock, because some of the investment that occurs is just replacing existing capital stock. So, the building wears out and we have to replace it.
Brendan Markey-Towler 32:52
Too hard. We set that aside. Depreciation is very funny thing to talk about.
Gene Tunny 32:56
Right? Yeah. Well, we’ll leave that for now. You got time just to chat about your great quote? I should have brought it in earlier. You use these different perspectives on GDP to provide a really nice summary of what’s been happening in Australia. I thought this was very good. Exactly. Okay, so after you analyze where the growth has occurred, and you know, it’d be good if you could explain this at the moment. You concluded this; to put it somewhat tribally, Australia is less and less a country that derives its wealth from making and building things. Still a country that makes its wealth by digging stuff out of the ground and renting houses, and more and more a country that consults and cares. Could you please explain how you came to that conclusion, Brendan?
Brendan Markey-Towler 33:53
Well, you so what I did there, this is one of the most informative aspects of the national accounts I’m very interested; everyone focuses on the demand side of the economy, because we’re all Keynesian.
Gene Tunny 34:07
What we’ve been heavily influenced by Keynes, yes. There’s no doubt about that, whether we’re Keynesian. So, that’s another question. You can go ahead. Yes.
Brendan Markey-Towler 34:13
We are all Keynesians. But the supply side of the economy is super interesting. See which sectors of the economy are generating the wealth. Now, the way that you can do that is by looking at gross value add, right. So, then you take the gross value added by each industry divided by the total GDP and you get the share of GDP, economic activity, economic value that is being created by that industry. And you can track that over time. Now, the problem with that data why almost no one really uses it? Some people do, but almost no one does. And you’ve used it, Gene, is that there’s a lot there, the ABS breaks the economy down by I think its 20 sectors. possibly 25. So, you’ve got to kind of cut it down to get some useful insights from it.
So, the way I did it was alright, let’s cut out everything that’s less than 5% of the economy and look only at things that produce more than 5% of Australian GDP. Now, no sector really produces more than about 15. But there’s a clear standout. And there are clear standout trends once you do that, and you clean the graph up by eliminating all the Martin “minor sectors”. And you see some very strong trends.
Trend number one that’s quite striking, and I should emphasize, this is all by real data. So, we hold prices constant to see what’s going on at the volumetric level in each of these sectors. So, we hold P constant, and we look at what’s changing in Q. Q is for quantity. And so, there’s benefits and costs to doing that. But it’s valuable as an exercise as long as you’re aware of the limitations of doing that. First interesting thing, manufacturing and construction are in decline in Australia. They’re not producing as much value add. In volumetric terms, they’re not producing as much value add anymore. They’ve been declining for the past 10 years as a share of GDP. So, that’s where we get the view that Australia is less and less a country that makes things and builds things; construction, manufacturing declining as a share of GDP.
Gene Tunny 36:30
So, with manufacturing, we had a car industry once, we subsidized a car industry, we tried to buy ourselves a car industry, and it just could not be viable on its own. And there wasn’t any more money we could throw at it to keep it open.
Brendan Markey-Towler 36:48
And you look at somewhere like Maroubra or Ipswich. Which would you know, once kind of manufacturing ish areas in Queensland. Maroubra main manufacturing now is government contracts, building bullets for the Australian Army.
Gene Tunny 37:03
And do they build trains, still?
Brendan Markey-Towler 37:06
They do now. Yes, Maroubra now has a trains contract to build trains for the Queensland Government as well. And I think Ipswich still has a little bit of a train industry as well. But really not too much, by the way of price manufacturers. It’s not to say that it doesn’t exist, and it’s not to say that it’s very valuable. Queensland, for instance, has very vibrant medical manufacturing sector. That’s kind of grown up on the back of our extremely good hospitals and medical research. But generally, across Australia, the story is one of the car industries; we don’t really make stuff anymore. It’s just not competitive to build stuff. And so, that number is reflecting something that you see a lot when you go down to Fortitude Valley here, which, you know, the state would like to think Silicon Valley. Yes. Anyway, it’s Fortitude Valley, Queensland Silicon Valley, you see that a lot of the companies there just want to grow big enough that they can afford to offshore their manufacturing elsewhere. And the classic one is, I think Trivium, the electric car battery manufacturer, which is, as soon as they got big enough, they got a loan from the Queensland Government and then went to build factories in Tennessee.
Gene Tunny 38:17
Is that right? Is that a good use of taxpayers’ money?
Brendan Markey-Towler 38:21
Well, I’m completely agnostic on that. So, that’s what’s that number is reflecting. Similarly, construction, this runs a bit counter to the crane index that we’re seeing in the city at the moment, but construction has been adding less and less to the economy. It’s not just large construction projects, but construction is declining as a share of GDP.
Gene Tunny 38:48
Well, I’ll have to look at this. But I think what could be explained is 10 years ago, we had that massive project up in Gladstone at Curtis Island where we built the three LNG terminals or what are they? Refrigeration or liquification facilities. They turn the methane that comes from the coal field, the coal seams to liquefy it so, they can put it on a boat economically and ship it to Japan or Korea. And that was like $70 billion.
And it basically doubled the level of capital expenditure in Queensland at the time. It’s absolutely extraordinary.
Brendan Markey-Towler 39:31
There’s a huge effort on part of government corporations to get that going.
Gene Tunny 39:35
And then in the southern states, maybe a few years later, I can’t remember the time; we had that big apartment construction boom. So, that could be explained. I’ll have to look at the data but go on.
Brendan Markey-Towler 39:48
And that’s what’s really good about the national accounts is kind of counter to what you’re seeing if you’re walking around, particularly, Brisbane at the moment. The number of cranes in the sky is astounding, but this is why statistics are important because what’s local loss to a particular area is not necessarily true of the entire country. And what’s even true of a particular sector of construction, residential construction, government construction is not necessarily true, it might mean that we’re not building that many mines, which ties into the second point, which is, although it has declined in volumetric terms, the mining sector is still the single biggest contributor to Australian real GDP. And it’s not close, it’s way up; I forget the exact number, but it’s well up towards 10% of the entire Australian economy value added is produced by the mining sector.
So, that’s, you know, digging stuff out of the ground, selling it to various countries around the world.. Behind that really interesting sector is, is the rental sector. So, a lot of value added in the Australian economy. It’s the only sector that holds candle to mining is the rental sector where people are building houses and renting them.
Gene Tunny 41:03
Okay. So, when you analyzed that, did you look at the industry, is it rental services? Or did you look at what’s in the national accounts as; there’s rental income, isn’t there? What do they call it? Trying to remember what the label is in the national accounts, but they impute rent for owner occupied dwellings as well, in that sector. If I remember correctly.
Brendan Markey-Towler 41:29
Rental services. I’m pretty sure is the exact name of the sector.
Gene Tunny 41:33
Looking at it by industry. Okay. Yeah.
Brendan Markey-Towler 41:36
So, that’s an important point, right? Because rent to also shows up as an income segment as well. Not nearly as big there. But the value add is quite large. And so that’s saying, you know, the Australian economy is very much one that is dominated at the moment, by digging stuff up out of the ground, and then sending it offshore, and providing housing for people. Those are the two biggest sectors of the Australian economy. And then, finally, the very long-term trend, we come to the third part of that bond ma that you so ably quaffed, which is, surprisingly, the sectors that are growing fastest as a share of the Australian economy are; you’ll have to double check me on this, but I’m pretty sure it’s called health care and social assistance.. And professional scientific and technical services. Those have gone quite strongly over the last few years as a share of GDP.
Scientific and Technical Services is obvious enough, right? That’s the IT department and you know, the lab.
Gene Tunny 42:45
There’s professional too.
Brendan Markey-Towler 42:49
Yeah. Professional Services is the big one. So, this is your consultancy lawyers. So on and so forth, right. It’s Eagle street, the consulting firms along Eagle street.
Gene Tunny 42:58
Where we are in Brisbane, in the top end of town, would you call it the big end of town? You’re sitting in water from place to the moment and the offices of Hopko Gannon, thanks, again for allowing us to use.
Brendan Markey-Towler 43:13
And so this area is growing really strong. I forget where the legal services are counted among professional service.
Gene Tunny 43:18
But I think I would be Yeah, sure.
Brendan Markey-Towler 43:21
They might be under administration, administrative services. But professional, scientific and technical services, basically, scientific and technical can kind of be in house. But a huge majority of that professional services is consulting, right? So, Australia is doing a lot more consulting as a share of GDP.
Gene Tunny 43:40
And this is business to business, typically? Business-to-business consulting services or business to government.
Brendan Markey-Towler 43:47
Business to government is the big one, especially here in Queensland right now. That’s not backed by a number. But that’s you know, that’s kind of;
Gene Tunny 43:58
There are numbers for the Australian Government. I’ll put them in the show notes, because I looked at what the Australian government has spent on the Big Four consulting firms like KPMG and PwC. And it’s hundreds of millions a year, right? It’s big money.
Brendan Markey-Towler 44:12
And then, you go step below and the state governments will probably be even bigger again, because every consulting project by the Department of Public Works now gets a cut benefit cost analysis written by one of the big firms, right. So, just because of the procurement rules around that, so professional, scientific and technical services really growing as a segment of GDP, but also health care and social assistance. And so that I would posit is really a reflection of the ageing population. Ageing population, you need more health care and social assistance, certainly. That sector is growing very strongly – aged care.
Gene Tunny 44:49
Yeah. Which is NDIS too, the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
Brendan Markey-Towler 44:53
Absolutely massive, huge boom. You throw a stone in Brisbane and you hit NDIS provider, which is really not good, you shouldn’t do that because that’s naughty. And that getting on the back of Yeah, health departments are in Queensland; Queensland Health is the largest single employer in the state. That’s a massive sector. It’s a $20 billion in the state budget. That’s a big number, right? And we’re always trying to spend more on it. So, very big sector that. So, those are the two real growth sectors in the Australian economy. And again, I should stress by volumetric measures, right? So, notice that that kind of cuts against the mining booms like us, and that goes to the difference between real and nominal GDP. Real being a volumetric thing where we’re trying to hold prices constant, and the reason we do that is because nominal GDP could be growing because the actual underlying productive capacity of the economy is growing, or because inflation is growing. And real GDP tries to say, what’s the underlying volumetric productive capacity of the economy? How’s that growing and contracting. And in that measure, you really see the big growth sectors, mining is actually declining as a volumetric share of GDP as a share of real GDP, but it’s still the biggest by far professional, scientific and technical services, and healthcare and social assistance really, really growing. Yeah, that’s where the saying, that’s where my little trite way of putting it came from. Australia is less and less a country that makes things and build things. It’s still very much a country that digs stuff out of the ground and provides housing, but it’s more and more something of a white collar economy.
Gene Tunny 46:43
Oh, yeah. It’s postindustrial. We’re moving more to services. Yeah.
Brendan Markey-Towler 46:49
Natural I mean, with the natural resources sector.
Gene Tunny 46:52
Yeah. that’s right. And I mean, because the world wants to buy our resources. And for the last year or so, they’ve been paying ridiculously high prices for them. It’s an open question over whether we want to sell it. Right. Well, yes. I mean, there’s the big issues there of course that we don’t have time for.
You’ve been very generous with your time, Brendan
Brendan Markey-Towler 47:22
You are very generous letting me on the podcast to talk to people again, Gene.
Gene Tunny 47:27
You’re a great talker. Always enjoy having you on.
Brendan Markey-Towler 47:30
Even with the bruised throat? Like I told you, I could talk through a wet cement.
Gene Tunny 47:35
Very good. So, any final points before we wrap up?
Brendan Markey-Towler 47:39
No, it just ends up on I ended up with the note of circling back to where we started, which is don’t underestimate the national accounts. They’re a really, really, really interesting data set. They give us such a rich view. We didn’t even talk tonight about how in Australia, they break down by state as well, so, we can get an even richer view of how the different states are doing because you know, Australian economy tracker – my blog.
Gene Tunny 48:06
Okay, right. On Sub stack, is it?.
Brendan Markey-Towler 48:09
Yeah, on Sub stack. Please subscribe and contribute to the Markey-Towler retirement fund. It’s founded on two points, which is that one, the perfect graph says more than a doctoral thesis and two, there’s no such thing as an Australian economy. There’s actually six different city state economies and two territories. So, the national accounts in Australia are amazing, not just because of the depth of analysis, they allow us on the supply side of the economy, but on the demand side as well. We get some really, really rich version. So, a plug to remember has to diehard nerds who didn’t have friends at school, but now we have the national accounts.
Gene Tunny 48:53
I’m sure you had friends at school, Brendan. Brendan Markey-Towler, that’s been terrific. I really enjoyed talking to you about the national accounts.
I really enjoyed talking to you, Gene. Thanks for having me.
Okay, that’s the end of this episode of Economics Explored. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please tell your family and friends and leave a comment or give us a rating on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Till next week, goodbye.
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