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Why Do Old GDP Numbers Keep Changing?

BEA-GDP-Blog-Graphic-June-2016BEA is getting ready for its big summer update of GDP and other national economic statistics, coming in late July. This annual ritual of refining figures from the last three years can be confusing. People wonder: Were the old numbers wrong? Are these new figures final? No, and not really. The numbers change because calculating GDP – the most comprehensive measure of U.S. economic activity – is always a work in progress.

Thousands of data points from more than 300 public and private sources feed into estimates of U.S. gross domestic product. Some information flows in fairly quickly, some takes months to arrive. The preeminent data, from the nation’s economic census, comes only once every five years. Yet BEA’s economists make their first estimate of a quarter’s GDP only about a month after that quarter ends.

How do they do that? The economists who produce quarterly GDP estimates – about 100 people – work with the best data available and, where necessary, fill in the gaps with projections based on alternative data sources and, in some cases, historical trends. The resulting estimates of the rate of growth or decline in the nation’s GDP have proven to be reliable snapshots of economic change. That first look at each quarter is in high demand from policymakers, investors, business people, journalists and others who need to know what’s happening in the economy, fast.

But that’s only the beginning. Over the next two months, more economic information about that quarter will arrive from government surveys, private data collectors and other sources, and the initial GDP estimate will be updated two more times. Later, it will be recalculated as part of BEA’s annual update in the summer – adding more complete information about consumer spending, state and local government spending, investment in business equipment, and more. The summer updates affect quarterly and annual GDP statistics from at least the previous three years.

Even then, a GDP number is never really finished. About every five years, following release of the Census Bureau’s economic census, BEA does a comprehensive review that further refines GDP estimates and their component statistics. This is when major changes in definitions and methodologies are typically introduced, and they may result in updates to statistics dating as far back as 1929, the first year for which annual estimates are published.

Even as the numbers fluctuate over the months and years, the big picture of long-term growth and business cycles captured by the initial GDP estimates holds up well, BEA studies show.

Confused? It’s easier to keep track if you know the schedule. Here’s the cycle of estimates for U.S. quarterly GDP:


  • About a month after a quarter ends
  • A closely watched first look at the general economic picture


  • About two months after the quarter ends
  • Reflects more complete source data
  • GDP rate may climb or fall 0.5 percentage point from advance estimate, on average


  • About three months after the quarter ends
  • More data means less reliance on projections
  • GDP rate may climb or fall 0.2 percentage point from second estimate, on average


  • Every summer
  • Includes a substantial influx of comprehensive data, such as annual surveys or tax data
  • Also may reflect improvements in methodology
  • Updates annual and quarterly estimates for the previous three years (and sometimes more)
  • Updates the first quarter of the current year, too
  • Also called the “annual revision”


  • Typically once every five years
  • Includes the most comprehensive available data, including from the economic census
  • Captures changes in the production environment in the U.S. economy
  • Incorporates changes in how the U.S. economy is measured
  • Reflects changes in international statistical standards
  • Recalculates annual statistics, dating back to 1929 in some cases, to conform
  • Recalculates quarterly statistics, sometimes back to 1947
  • Also called the “comprehensive revision”

From the advance estimate to the most recent comprehensive update, the average amount of change for a real, or inflation-adjusted, GDP rate is plus or minus 1.2 percentage points.

BEA’s cycle of GDP updates reflects a dedication to timeliness, accuracy and completeness. The estimates are informative and reliable, but they may never be completely final – if there are improvements to data feeding into GDP or improvements to statistical standards.

Real Consumer Spending Slows in May

Personal income increased 0.2 percent in May after increasing 0.5 percent in April. WagesPersonal Income June 29 2016 and salaries, the largest component of personal income, increased 0.2 percent in May after increasing 0.5 percent in April.

Current-dollar disposable personal income (DPI), after-tax income, increased 0.2 percent in May after increasing 0.5 percent in April.

Real DPI, income adjusted for taxes and inflation, increased 0.1 percent in May after increasing 0.2 percent in April.

Real consumer spending (PCE), spending adjusted for price changes, increased 0.3 percent in May after increasing 0.8 percent in April. Spending on durable goods increased 0.6 percent in May after increasing 2.6 percent in April.

PCE prices increased 0.2 percent in May after increasing 0.3 percent in April. Excluding food and energy, PCE prices increased 0.2 percent in May, the same increase as in April.

Personal saving rate
Personal saving as a percent of DPI was 5.3 percent in May and 5.4 percent in April.

For more information, read the full report.

Real Disposable Personal Income June 29

GDP Increases in First Quarter

“Third” estimate of GDP
Real gross domestic product (GDP) increased 1.1 percent in the first quarter of 2016, according to the “third” estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The growth rate was 0.3 percentage point higher than the “second” estimate released last month. In the fourth quarter of 2015, real GDP increased 1.4 percent.  Q2Q growth in real GDP June 28

GDP highlights
The first‐quarter increase in real GDP mainly reflected an increase in consumer spending on services. Spending on household services increased, notably on health care and on housing and utilities. Consumer spending on nondurable goods also increased. However, consumer spending on durable goods declined, notably on motor vehicles and parts.

In addition, housing investment, state and local government expenditures, and exports each increased.

These positive contributions to GDP growth were partially offset by the following:

  • Business investment in equipment and in structures decreased.
  • Farm and nonfarm private inventory investment declined.
  • Federal government spending declined, notably on national defense spending.

The upward revision to real GDP growth reflected upward revisions to exports and to business investment, which were partly offset by a downward revision to consumer spending. More information.

Corporate profits
Corporate profits increased 1.8 percent at a quarterly rate in the first quarter of 2016 after decreasing 7.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2015.   Q2Q Corporate profits June 28

  • Profits of domestic nonfinancial corporations increased 6.4 percent after decreasing 10.2 percent.
  • Profits of domestic financial corporations decreased 3.0 percent after decreasing 6.0 percent.
  • Profits from the rest of the world decreased 7.2 percent after decreasing 1.7 percent.

Over the last 4 quarters, corporate profits decreased 4.3 percent.

For more information, read the full report.

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