A change was made in the latest system of
national accounts (SNA93) that recommended the capitalization of software. This was widely welcomed since it recognized
the “asset” and “investment” characteristics of software
and brought the treatment of software purchased separately into line with software
purchased as a bundle with hardware, which has always been capitalized.
However, this has come at a cost, namely, a
deterioration in the international comparability of economic statistics. An examination of the estimation techniques used in National Statistics Offices (NSOs) in the OECD area suggests that this
reflects differences in interpreting what software is, as much as it does
differences in measurement approaches.
This is not the only area of the national
accounts where issues of international comparability arise but the
comparability of software estimates across countries has been the subject of
much discussion and scrutiny, reflecting its importance to economic growth and
investment and its role in productivity and capital services’ estimates. The differences in estimation processes are
the impact of harmonizing
definitions and measurement techniques could lead to revisions of over 1 percent of current price GDP levels, with consequential impacts on GDP growth and
To address these measurement issues, and
improve international comparability, an OECD Task Force was set up in October
2001. 19 countries were represented in
the Task Force – 12 European and 7 non-European. A European (Eurostat) Task Force was also convened to work in parallel with the OECD
Task Force. The common objective of the
task forces was to propose conceptual and practical recommendations on software
measurement in the national accounts that would improve the comparability of
data between countries.
This report describes the recommendations of
the OECD Task Force that will be presented to the OECD national accounts expert
meeting in October 2002. The Eurostat
Task Force presented its report to the Eurostat GNP Committee in July 2002.
While the two reports may differ in
presentation, their recommendations are fully consistent.
In the present report, to help the reader,
recommendations have been highlighted and numbered, and a summary of
recommendations is included as an annex.
The first step of the Task Force was to
evaluate the extent of differences across countries and to improve understanding
of their underlying causes. As such a
detailed Questionnaire was sent to Task Force Members towards the end of 2001. Responses confirmed that significant
differences existed, both in concepts and in estimation procedures, and that this compromised comparability.
The two charts below, compiled from a synthesis
of the returns, illustrate the impact and significance of these
differences. The first details the
significance of software, as a proportion of GDP. A striking feature is the variance across
countries, particularly when contrasted with other information. For example, the UK, with a software-producing
industry 50% larger than Denmark’s (as a percent of GDP) has software
investment levels less than one-third the size
Central to the issue of measurement is how
investment expenditure in computer services (software) is distinguished from
intermediate consumption in computer services.
In other words, the ratio of capitalized software to total expenditure
(by businesses and government on computer services) is a measure of the
propensity of any country to capitalise software, so a comparison of this ratio
(the investment ratio) provides
insight into the scale of measurement differences across countries. The Questionnaire used a harmonized
definition of computer services and the chart below compares this ratio across
Figure 2 below compares these
ratios for 14 OECD countries. (Not all
countries were able to comply exactly with the harmonized definition although
all EU countries use exactly the same definition).
A priori, assuming that common definitions and
measurement procedures existed, one would have expected these ratios to be much
closer together. At the more detailed level differences are starker. For example for a given expense of 100 on
similar (detailed) types of software services, the US will capitalize 100,
while France will capitalize only 50.
One feasible and measurable objective of the Task Force, therefore,
would be to obtain similar ratios for the same computer services sub-product
groups across countries.
It is this benchmark that will enable the Task Force
to gauge its success in the coming years (after NSOs adopt the changes recommended
in this report). A short survey will be
sent to participating countries during 2003 in order to try to measure the actual
or potential impacts of the present recommendations.
Responses to the questionnaire, and discussions
with business accountants, revealed that one of the main sources of difference
between countries is the weakness of business surveys.
Business investment surveys, on the whole,
use fairly general descriptions of software that leave some ambiguity in
interpretation to businesses; which tend to adopt very prudent accounting
For example, very few businesses
capitalize own-account or customized software including those companies with
large and valuable “software originals” such as Microsoft. Another problem, related to
“prudence” is the fact that tax regulations do not in practice
provide incentives for businesses to capitalize software, as they generally
allow them, as an option, to be expensed.
Some countries have recognized this phenomenon
explicitly in their estimation procedures and so use independently derived
(“supply-based”) methods to estimate software investment instead of
business survey estimates.
As a result,
countries that base their estimates on traditional business surveys, using what
businesses report as capitalized, are likely to obtain results that are much
lower than countries that estimate independently. An objective of the Task Force is to improve
matters here by providing a clearer definition of software investment, that
can be, in due course, included in business investment surveys.