Sex & Drugs & GDP

On a trip to the coast a fortnight ago, I went inside a café to order a couple of ice-cream cones. Ahead of me in the queue was a father, who was looking a little stressed. He was waiting for a few burgers and hotdogs for his family and it was taking a little longer than expected.

He wasn’t the only one who was a little tense. The staff were feeling the heat of the kitchen as well – and I was wondering how I managed to get on the wrong queue again. His order did finally arrive and everything seemed to relax a bit as the lady behind the counter entered his order into the digital till.

In anticipation, the dad stood there with a twenty pound note in his hand and I doubt he expected much change. However, the final total on the till suggested he had under-clubbed it a bit. The price for some soft drinks and a few burgers and hotdogs? £26,000.

A bit pricey for a few burgers and drinks.
A bit pricey for a few burgers and drinks.

 

He quite calmly said, ‘I wasn’t thinking of spending that much’. And from the back of the kitchen came a distant voice, ‘has the till gone wrong again?’

They settled on an amount nearer £15 and my own bill was a more moderate £3.20 as we resorted to the old analogue system of a notepad to record the trade and cash to pay for it.

I mention it because, for a fleeting moment there, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the UK was artificially raised by approximately £25,985.

I am jesting, of course, but last week we learned that the Office for National Statistics will attempt to add the oldest industry in the economy to their quarterly estimate of how the economy is faring. From September, as part of other changes that will lift GDP by 2.3%, they will include the value of drugs and prostitution.

It’s important to emphasise the word ‘estimate’. GDP figures are reported and debated in the media as though they are factual, but they are subject to revisions as some parts of the economy are far harder to assess than others and not all the data arrives at the same time.

In this case, the Office for National Statistics kindly give us a separate Excel spreadsheet that shows us their assumptions. In total, it amounts to £9.7 billion, based on 2009 prices, or approximately 0.7% of the then GDP – and it breaks down as follows:

Prostitution        £5.27 billion        54%

Drugs                  £4.43 billion        46%

In the case of prostitution they reached that number by estimating there are 60,879 prostitutes in the UK – each with 25 clients a week paying £67.16. If £67.16 seems ridiculously precise, it’s an old figure of £50 adjusted for inflation. Take off costs of £44 million, which were borrowed from a Dutch estimate and you get the final figure.

And for the drugs industry, cocaine in its various forms represents 71% of the total (42% crack, 29% powder). Those numbers allow for the cost of importing it, so the sales figures are even higher with cocaine accounting for 77% of the grim total.

So why are they attempting to do this?

Ostensibly it is to meet European Union rules to establish common practice among member countries. The Dutch, for example, have reported parts of these figures for years as prostitution and certain drugs as are legal. However, the overall changes are also in line with international guidance from the likes of the US and Australia.

It’s hard to argue with the idea of trying to measure all areas of the economy and some countries have a lot of work to do. In April the IMF endorsed a near doubling of Nigeria’s GDP to $510 billion as new industires were added and prices updated. As the Economist newspaper pointed out, the new numbers aren’t fiddled, it’s the old numbers that were wonky.

So what’s most important is that the numbers as a whole are regarded as credible. And the numbers of two countries stand out as being questionable.

The government of Greece, endorsed by some economists, justified higher levels of national debt before the recent crisis due to the estimated size of its black economy. At the time, as now, it wasn’t even collecting normal levels of tax on its legitimate one. We know how that one turned out.

And then there’s China, where the GDP figures miraculously meet official annual targets near 7%, despite the sheer scale and complexity of their calculation. Mathematically, continuous growth of 7% is a notable number – it means the economy is doubling in size every ten years. And if an economy of that size is really growing at that rate, they are more likely to bump into problems – especially rising levels of debt.

Michael Pettis, a professor of finance at Peking University, whose blog we have followed for some time, now makes the case that it can’t continue that way – the country needs to rebalance towards lower growth nearer 3 or 4%. I’m not sure the investment world fully appreciates that.

I’ll leave the final comment to the lyrics of Ian Drury, from whom we borrowed the title of this blog. He knew a thing or two about simple explanations of complicated subjects. My favourite has to be these two verses about two well known gentlemen from ‘There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards’ –

Van Gogh did some eyeball pleasers

He must have been a pencil squeezer

He didn’t do the Mona Lisa

That was an Italian geezer.

The next verse isn’t quite as factual, but brilliant nonetheless

Einstein can’t be classed as witless

He claimed atoms were the littlest

When you did a bit of splitting-em-ness

Frighten everybody shitless