United Nations System of National Accounts

The United Nations System of National Accounts (often abbreviated as "SNA" or "UNSNA") is an international standard system of national accounts, first published in 1953.

Handbooks with cumulated revisions were published in 1968 and 1993. The aim is to provide an integrated, complete system accounts enabling international comparisons of all significant economic activity. The suggestion is that individual countries use UNSNA as a guide in constructing their own national accounting systems.

Publication of data

Economic and financial data from member countries are used to compile annual (and sometimes quarterly) data on gross product, investment, capital transactions, government expenditure and foreign trade. The results are published in a UN Yearbook, National Accounts Statistics: Main Aggregates and Detailed Tables. The values provided are in the national currency.

Additionally, national statistical offices may also publish SNA-type data series. More detailed data at a lower level of aggregation is often available on request. Because national accounts data is notoriously prone to revision, there are often discrepancies between the totals cited for the same accounting period in different publications issued in different years.

The quality and comprehensiveness of national accounts data differs between countries. Among the reasons are that:

  • some governments invest far more money in statistical research than other governments.
  • economic activity in some countries is much more difficult to measure accurately than in others (for example, a large grey economy, widespread illiteracy, a lack of cash economy, survey access difficulties, very large mobility of people and assets).
  • some statistical agencies have more scientific autonomy and budgetary discretion than others.
  • some countries have a strong intellectual tradition in the area of social statistics, others do not.

Main accounts in the system

UNSNA includes the following main accounts:

  • the production account (components of gross output)
  • the primary distribution of income account (incomes generated by production)
  • the transfers account (including social spending)
  • the household expenditure account
  • the capital account
  • the (domestic) financial transactions account
  • the changes in asset values account
  • the assets and liabilities account (balance sheet)
  • the external transactions account

These accounts include various annexes and sub-accounts, and standards are also provided for input-output tables showing the transactions between economic sectors.


UNSNA continues to be developed further, and international conferences are regularly held to discuss various conceptual and measurement issues.

Some examples are the construction of accounts for environmental resources, the measurement of the trade in services and of capital stocks, the treatment of insurance payments, the grey economy, employee compensation in the form of stock options or other non-wage income etc.

Discussions and updates are reported in SNA News & Notes

Criticism of UNSNA

UNSNA has been criticised as biased by feminist sociologists such as Marilyn Waring and Maria Mies because no imputation for the monetary value of unpaid housework or for unpaid voluntary labor is made in the accounts; even although the accounts do include the "imputed rental value of owner-occupied dwellings" (the market-rents which owner-occupiers would receive if they rented out the housing they occupy). This obscures the reality that market-production depends to a large extent on non-market labour being performed.

However, such criticism raises several questions:

  • whether an international standard method of imputation for the value of such services is feasible;
  • whether the imputation would result in meaningful, internationally comparable measures;
  • whether attaching a price to voluntary labor, done primarily by women, itself actually performs an emancipatory function.

In countries such as the USA, Britain, and Japan, statisticians have in recent years estimated the value of housework using data from time use surveys. The valuation principle often applied is that of how much a service would cost, if it was purchased at market rates, instead of being voluntarily supplied.

Marxian economists have criticized UNSNA concepts also from a different theoretical perspective on the new value added or value product. On this view, the distinctions drawn in UNSNA to define income from production and property income are rather capricious or eclectic, obscuring thereby the different components and sources of realised surplus value; the categories are said to be based on an inconsistent view of newly created value, conserved value, and transferred value (see also double counting).

Additionally, it is argued the UNSNA aggregate "compensation of employees" does not distinguish adequately between pre-tax and post-tax wage income, the income of higher corporate officers, and deferred income (employee and employer contributions to social insurance schemes of various kinds) on the other. "Compensation of employees" may also include the value of stock-options received as income by corporate officers. Thus, it is argued, the accounts have to be substantially re-aggregated, to obtain a true picture of income generated and distributed in the economy.

Statisticians have also criticized the validity of international statistical comparisons using national accounts data, on the ground that estimates are not compiled in a uniform way. For example, Jochen Hartwig provides evidence to show that "the divergence in growth rates [of real GDP] between the U.S. and the EU since 1997 can be explained almost entirely in terms of changes to deflation methods that have been introduced in the U.S. after 1997, but not - or only to a very limited extent - in Europe".

See also


  • 1993 UNSNA standard
  • Carol S. Carson, Jeanette Honsa, "The United Nations System of National Accounts: an introduction", in: Survey of Current Business, June, 1990
  • Review of Income and Wealth
  • Paul Studenski, The Income of Nations; Theory, Measurement, and Analysis: Past and Present. New York: New York University Press, 1958.
  • Zoltan Kenessey (Ed.), The Accounts of Nations, Amsterdam IOS, 1994.
  • Andre Vanoli, A History of National Accounting, IOS Press, Amsterdam, 2005
  • Anwar M. Shaikh and Ahmet Tonak, Measuring the Wealth of Nations. Cambridge University Press.
  • Jochen Hartwig, "On misusing National Accounts data for Governance Purposes"

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