Americans buy a lot of phones that are made in other countries. And those phones keep getting better — a phone you can buy for $100 today is capable of much more (for good or ill) than the phone you bought for the same price in 2013. That means it’s more valuable.
Using a new tool from the Fed, the government is now better able to estimate the value of that improvement — and see how much it underestimated it in the past.
And it turns out they underestimated by a lot. The revisions make clear that the phones Americans were importing were more valuable phones, in inflation-adjusted terms, that previously thought. Because that pushes up the real value of imports, it adds to the trade deficit, which has been in the news a bit lately.
Increasing the trade deficit detracts from the gross domestic product, so we’re left with an interesting math exercise from all these revisions. For 2015, for example, a positive revision to the G.D.P. from larger-than-previously-measured levels of investment and personal spending was partially canceled out by the increase in the trade deficit from the phone you bought.
In other words, you got a better deal than you knew on that phone. Which kind of hurt the economy. At least, so far as we can tell right now.