What Is an Output Gap?

What Is an Output Gap?

5 Min.

An output gap refers to the difference between the actual output of an economy and its maximum potential output, expressed as a percentage of gross domestic product. It compares the actual GDP (output) and the potential GDP (maximum efficiency output). A positive or negative output gap indicates an economy's inefficiency. Policymakers often use the output gap to determine inflationary pressure to make policy decisions. However, the output gap isn't always a reliable economic indicator because it relies on the estimation of potential output.


Within economic realms, the output gap epitomizes the variance between a nation's actual economic output and its ultimate potential, delineated as a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP). This disparity can manifest as either positive or negative. The negative iteration implies that the tangible economic output lags behind the economy's full operational potential. Conversely, a positive output gap indicates an economy surpassing anticipated performance levels as its actual output surpasses the recognized maximum capacity.

How Does an Output Gap Work?

Exploring the intricacies of the output gap involves juxtaposing the genuine Gross Domestic Product (GDP) against both its potential counterpart and the pinnacle of efficiency in output. Calculating this gap proves challenging due to the elusive nature of estimating an economy's optimal operational efficiency. While consensus eludes economists on the ideal method for gauging potential GDP, the consensus generally centers on full employment as a pivotal element of maximal output.

A methodology to project potential GDP involves plotting a trend line through actual GDP data spanning multiple decades, minimizing the influence of short-term fluctuations. By adhering to this trend line, one can approximate the current position of GDP or its anticipated value in the near future.

Calculating the output gap involves a simple calculation where the variance between actual GDP and potential GDP is divided by the potential GDP. However, determining potential output is not straightforward since it is not directly observable. As a result, historical data is used as a reference point to estimate potential output.

Evaluating Economic Efficiency: The Impacts of Positive and Negative Output Gaps

Positive and negative output gaps serve as distinctive markers of an economy's operational efficacy, each carrying its set of consequences.

A positive output gap signifies heightened demand for goods and services, seemingly advantageous for an economy. However, the repercussions of this heightened demand include businesses and employees operating beyond their peak efficiency to meet the increased demand, often resulting in inflation. The surge in demand triggers an upswing in both labor costs and commodity prices.

Conversely, a negative output gap denotes a scarcity of demand for goods and services, compelling companies and workers to function below optimal efficiency levels. This scenario paints a picture of a sluggish economy and foreshadows a dip in GDP growth, potentially indicating an impending recession. As overall economic demand wanes, wages and prices of goods typically experience a decline.

Pros and Cons of Utilizing the Output Gap Metric

Exploring the merits and demerits of the output gap unveils its significance in economic analysis, accompanied by inherent challenges.


  • Utilizing gross domestic product in its computation, the output gap serves as a valuable indicator of economic performance.
  • It aids in discerning whether the economy is underperforming or growing too rapidly, providing insights into inflation rates.
  • Policymakers leverage the output gap to formulate strategic fiscal and monetary decisions, such as adjusting interest rates to manage inflation.
  • Its widespread use among economists, analysts, and the general public empowers informed financial and investment decisions.


  • The complexity in measuring the output gap arises from the elusive nature of determining potential output, which relies on prediction and estimation.
  • Diverse methodologies, including trend output and trend growth, further complicate the measurement of potential output.
  • Interconnected relationships within the economy, such as a less active workforce or economic challenges for businesses, can distort the accuracy of potential output calculations.

Output Gap Example

Examining the real-world dynamics of the output gap in the U.S., data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis reveals the actual GDP at $21.48 trillion in the fourth quarter of 2020. Concurrently, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis indicates the potential GDP for the same period as $19.41 trillion, leading to a positive output gap of approximately 10.7% (calculated as the difference between actual and potential GDP divided by potential GDP). While this calculation represents one estimate of potential GDP, consensus suggests the U.S. faced a positive output gap in 2020.

In response to this positive gap, the Federal Reserve Bank has consistently raised interest rates since 2016, witnessing an increase from less than 1% in 2016 to a peak of 1.25% in early 2020. However, the global financial crisis prompted a rate drop below 1% in mid-March 2020.

Exploring Potential Output

Potential output, representing an economy's maximum production capacity under full-employment-GDP conditions, embodies the zenith of economic performance. Unlike the tangible measurement of actual output, potential output remains unobservable, reliant on estimations. An economy's output gap, the divergence between actual and potential output, manifests as positive or negative. A positive gap signifies an economy exceeding expectations, while a negative gap suggests underperformance below full capacity. Governments tackling inflationary output gaps may resort to reducing spending, curtailing transfer payments, and managing bonds and securities. Conversely, during a recession, the actual output gap falls below the potential output gap. Governments aiming to restore equilibrium to potential GDP can deploy various strategies, such as tax adjustments, interest rate maneuvers, and alterations in government spending, contingent on whether the actual output is positive or negative.


The output gap, representing the difference between actual and potential GDP, is a pivotal economic indicator. Despite challenges in estimating potential output, it guides policymakers in gauging efficiency and inflationary pressure. Positive and negative gaps have distinct impacts, influencing macroeconomic decisions. Real-world examples, like the U.S. in 2020, underscore the practical implications of output gap calculations, shaping monetary policies. In essence, comprehending potential output and output gaps is vital for informed economic analysis and policy formulation.

Output Gap
Gross Domestic Product (GDP)