Real vs. Nominal

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Definitions and Basics

    Definition: The nominal value of a good is its value in terms of money. The real value is its value in terms of some other good, service, or bundle of goods.
    Examples:
    • Nominal: That CD costs $18. Japan's science and technology spending is about 3 trillion yen per year.
    • Real: A year of college costs about the value of a Toyota Camry. Those tickets to see Van Halen cost me three weeks' worth of food!
    Relative price is another term for the real price of a good or service. When we say that the relative price of computers has fallen in recent years, we mean that the price of computers relative to or measured in terms of other goods and services—such as TVs or cars—has declined. Relative prices of individual goods and services can decrease even if nominal prices are all increasing, because of inflation.
    Real versus nominal value, at Answers.com
    In economics, the nominal values of something are its money values in different years. Real values adjust for differences in the price level in those years. Examples include a bundle of commodities, such as Gross Domestic Product, and income. For a series of nominal values in successive years, different values could be because of differences in the price level. But nominal values do not specify how much of the difference is from changes in the price level. Real values remove this ambiguity. Real values convert the nominal values as if prices were constant in each year of the series. Any differences in real values are then attributed to differences in quantities of the bundle or differences in the amount of goods that the money incomes could buy in each year....
    Gross Domestic Product, from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics
    In practice BEA first uses the raw data on production to make estimates of nominal GDP, or GDP in current dollars. It then adjusts these data for inflation to arrive at real GDP. But BEA also uses the nominal GDP figures to produce the "income side" of GDP in double-entry bookkeeping. For every dollar of GDP there is a dollar of income. The income numbers inform us about overall trends in the income of corporations and individuals. Other agencies and private sources report bits and pieces of the income data, but the income data associated with the GDP provide a comprehensive and consistent set of income figures for the United States. These data can be used to address important and controversial issues such as the level and growth of disposable income per capita, the return on investment, and the level of saving....
    Interest, from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics
    The real interest rate on money loans will be the stated (or nominal) rate minus the anticipated rate of inflation. In countries that are experiencing rapid growth in the amount of money available, interest rates will be very high. But these will be not be high real interest rates. Instead, they will be high nominal interest rates. If expected inflation is 10 percent, for example, and if the real interest rate is 5 percent, the nominal interest rate is 15 percent. But someone who lends money at 15 percent for a year will not be repaid with 15 percent more resources at the end of the year. Rather, the lender will be repaid with 15 percent more money and will be able to use that money to buy only 5 percent more resources. ...

In the News and Examples

  • Tax Freedom Day 2014 is April 21, Three Days Later Than Last Year. TaxFoundation.org
  • Tax Freedom Day is the day when the nation as a whole has earned enough money to pay its total tax bill for year. A vivid, calendar-based illustration of the cost of government, Tax Freedom Day divides all federal, state, and local taxes by the nationŐs income. In 2014, Americans will pay $3.0 trillion in federal taxes and $1.5 trillion in state taxes, for a total tax bill of $4.5 trillion, or 30.2 percent of income. This year, Tax Freedom Day falls on April 21, or 111 days into the year.

A Little History: Primary Sources and References

    Irving Fisher, from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics
    Fisher was also the first economist to distinguish clearly between real and nominal interest rates. He pointed out that the real interest rate is equal to the nominal interest rate (the one we observe) minus the expected inflation rate. If the nominal interest rate is 12 percent, for example, but people expect inflation of 7 percent, then the real interest rate is only 5 percent. Again, this is still the basic understanding of modern economists....

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