By Ryan Barnes

Release Date: Advance release: four weeks after quarter ends;
Final release: three months after quarter ends
Release Time: 8:30am Eastern Standard Time
Coverage: Previous quarter
Released By: Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA)
Latest Release: http://www.bea.doc.gov/bea/dn1.htm


Background
The gross domestic product (GDP) is the godfather of the indicator world. As an aggregate measure of total economic production for a country, GDP represents the market value of all goods and services produced by the economy during the period measured, including personal consumption, government purchases, private inventories, paid-in construction costs and the foreign trade balance (exports are added, imports are subtracted).

Presented only quarterly, GDP is most often presented on an annualized percent basis. Most of the individual data sets will also be given in real terms, meaning that the data is adjusted for price changes, and is therefore net of inflation.

The GDP is an extremely comprehensive and detailed report. In fact, reading the GDP report brings us back to many of the indicators covered in earlier tutorial topics, as GDP incorporates many of them: retail sales, personal consumption and wholesale inventories are all used to help calculate the gross domestic product. Various chain-weighted indexes discussed in earlier topics are used to create Real GDP Quantity Indexes with a current base year of 2000. (For further reading, see The Importance Of Inflation And GDP.)

What it Means for Investors
Real GDP is the one indicator that says the most about the health of the economy and the advance release will almost always move markets. It is by far the most followed, discussed and digested indicator out there - useful for economists, analysts, investors and policy makers. The general consensus is that 2.5-3.5% per year growth in real GDP is the range of best overall benefit; enough to provide for corporate profit and jobs growth yet moderate enough to not incite undue inflationary concerns. If the economy is just coming out of recession, it is OK for the GDP figure to jump into the 6-8% range briefly, but investors will look for the long-term rate to stay near the 3% level. The general definition of an economic recession is two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth.

While the value of both exports and imports are included in the GDP report, imports are subtracted from total GDP, meaning that all consumer purchases of imported items are not counted as contributions toward GDP. Because the U.S. runs a current account deficit, importing far more than is exported, reported GDP figures have a slight drag on them. A related measure provided in the report, gross national product (GNP), goes one step further by only counting the value of goods and services produced by labor and property within the United States. (To learn more, read Current Account Deficits.)

The "corporate profits" and "inventory" data in the GDP report are a great resource for equity investors, as both categories show total growth during the period; corporate profits data also displays pre-tax profits, operating cash flows and breakdowns for all major sectors of the economy.

The biggest downside of this data is its lack of timeliness; investors only get one update per quarter and revisions can be large enough to significantly change the percentage change in GDP.



The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) even supplies its own analysis of the quarterly data, presenting several useful documents that condense the massive release down to a manageable and readable size. They also provide an annual analysis of data that segments results down to the industry level - a very useful tool for both equity and fixed-income investors who are interested in particular industries related to their holdings.

Strengths:
  • GDP is considered the broadest indicator of economic output and growth.
  • Real GDP takes inflation into account, allowing for comparisons against other historical time periods.
  • The Bureau of Economic Analysis issues its own analysis document with each GDP release, which is a great investor tool for analyzing figures and trends, and reading highlights of the very lengthy full release

Weaknesses:
  • Data is not very timely - it is only released quarterly.
  • Revisions can change historical figures measurably (the difference between 3% and 3.5% GDP growth is a big one in terms of monetary policy)

The Closing Line
While quarter-to-quarter figures can show some volatility, long-term trends in GDP growth remain the single most conclusive piece of information on the economy as a whole. This indicator is a must-know for investors in all asset classes.


Next: Economic Indicators: Housing Starts »



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