11 March 2014

Measuring the Future as Well as the Past - Adding Entrepreneurial Activity to Measures of GDP and Unemployment

In the wake of the Great Depression, the US began to measure GDP. Simon Kuznets, in 1937, presented his formulation of gross domestic product to the U.S. Congress for the first time. As obvious and as simple as it sounds, if economic growth mattered and was going to be a goal of economic policy, it had to be measured.

In the 50 years after GDP was defined, GDP grew about 50% faster than it had in the 50 years before. Management 101 is "measure what matters."

Which brings us to entrepreneurship, for which no simple equivalent to GDP exists. Making the rash assumption that it matters, it seems worthy of a Simon Kuznets for the 21st century, someone to create a measure that would - in a single value - capture the rise and fall in entrepreneurial initiatives.

The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) offers a candidate for this measure. The good and the bad of their data set is that it is rich. You can compare Total Early Stage Entrepreneurial Activity across countries, investment rates, growth expectations, etc. This is a delightful database for serious students. It is less helpful for a simple report akin to "GDP rose from 2.3% to 3.3% this year." 

The OECD has developed International Metrics for Entrepreneurship (with financial aid - and presumably advice - from the Kauffman Foundation) that allow comparisons across countries and also guide in policy formulation. (Note how much better the UK's recovery has been than the US recovery in this regards.)

Stock market investors look for leading indicators, measures that predict what will happen to stock prices. (Weather prediction that would then influence crop yields was one of the original leading indicators.) That matters. But what matters more to a community are measures of activities that will create - rather than just predict - future prosperity. In this regards, it is hard to think of a more important measure than entrepreneurial activity.

Curiously, in Obama's annual report, entrepreneur ( or entrepreneurs or entrepreneurship) is mentioned only 6 times in 410 pages. By contrast, the UK has done more than merely make mention of entrepreneurship. In November of last year, the UK announced its 10,000th startup loan. It doesn't seem like an accident that the UK's rate of new enterprises is up 40% since before the recession while the US's rate has yet to fully recover. The UK is laying policies for future economic growth that are already showing up in increased rates of business formation. Look for the UK's future GDP growth to outpace that of the US for this reason alone. 

Every good manager and policy maker knows that intentionality precedes results. Managers who want high performance don't just shrug and tell their teams, "Whatever." On a similar note, policy makers intent on creating economic growth are intentional about everything from infrastructure investments to tax policies to education and permits. Entrepreneurship is as likely to respond to government initiatives as is education. And one of the simplest way to communicate what matters is to begin talking about what desired results look like. For this, a measure can be a good thing.

As it is, the awareness of the rate of new business formation is paltry in comparison to awareness to the unemployment rate; and yet it is the first that will do the most to change the second. Unemployment rate is not a cause. It is an effect.

If you want to measure past economic performance, measure GDP and unemployment. If you want to measure future economic performance, measure entrepreneurship. That's reasons enough to standardize and publish easy metrics to explain our entrepreneurial performance.

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