Understanding Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE)
The U.S. is a consumption driven economy; personal consumption expenditures (PCE), that is consumption by households and nonprofits represent approximately 70% of GDP; in comparison, Japanese private consumption is a bit less than 60% of GDP (Japanese GDP data are available here) and German final consumer expenditure is around 57% (see here for German GDP data).
The U.S. is in the process of changing the way it presents PCE data; in this article I will briefly describe the new method to be implemented in 2009, described by the BEA in an article published in May 2008 (see here for the pdf). The main change are that the BEA is using the international System of National Accounts (SNA) classifications and making the PCE data more compatible with other data that the government compiles (such as the consumer price index, CPI).
Roughly 98% of PCE are household consumption expenditures (the rest are the consumption expenditures of nonprofit institutions). Health and housing are the largest categories, each roughly 18% of PCE, followed by transportation (11%) and then recreation, food purchased for off-premises consumption (largely food consumed at home), financial services, food services and accomodations (food consumed in restaurants and hotel expenditures) and other goods, services and household furnishing and clothing, that comprise most of the rest of the category (between 4 and 9% each).
One way that BEA classifies PCE is by the type of good purchased; goods are divided into nondurable goods (23%), durable goods (13%) and services including purchased meals and beverages (64%). The services category is greatly expanded by including the purchased meals and beverages category (formerly included in nondurable goods). While the behavior of the US consumer did not change, this reclassification emphasizes the size of the US services sector.
Unlike GDP numbers, PCE is available both monthly and quarterly. Normally the monthly PCE number comes out a day or two after the GDP number. For example, the first revision of second quarter 2008 GDP (so-called preliminary GDP) will be released on August 28 and then July PCE numbers will be released on August 29. This schedule creates a slightly odd result: at the end of August, we get a revision of 2008:II (April to June GDP numbers) and July PCE; at the end of September we get a final revision of 2008:II GDP and August PCE; by now we know 2/3 of the PCE data for the third quarter. At the end of October the advance estimate of 2008:III GDP is released; this release includes the quarterly PCE. Yet we do not learn the September monthly PCE until a few days later (there is some residual uncertainty about the PCE in the third month, even when the quarterly PCE is already known, as there are usually revisions to the earlier monthly numbers).