Is the lack of economic data leaving a hole in your heart? Let your friends in private equity help.

October 11, 2013

The government is shut down. Here's what a major private equity firm thinks is happening to key economic data (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The government shutdown is making this a hard few weeks for people who care about how the economy is doing. Since the shutdown began, scheduled releases on employment, international trade, retail sales, and inflation have been non-existent. If it persists, it will leave economic policymakers flying in the dark (including the Federal Reserve, when it next meets at the end of the month). And it will be a frustrating thing for all the businesses and financial market participants who rely on reliable data to help make their investment decisions.

But now, into the breach, comes the Carlyle Group. The Washington-based private equity firm has used confidential data from its portfolio of 200 companies to try to estimate what the broad economic indicators collected by the U.S. government will ultimately show, if and when they are finally released.

"Several of our monthly data series are highly correlated with, and therefore may serve as reliable proxies for, U.S. official data that are not currently reported due to the government shutdown." Jason Thomas, Carlyle's chief economist, said in a news release. ”The firm gathers company data – orders, shipments, occupancy rates, etc. – most synchronized with macroeconomic series like GDP, retail sales and industrial production. Carlyle then formally calibrates these data to official series to estimate, for example, what a 1% increase in telecom equipment orders means for overall business spending."

What kind of economic situation do the Carlyle numbers point to? It looks like the same slow growth that the United States has experienced over the last three years persisted in September. Carlyle estimates that September retail sales rose 0.25 percent, which is a bit below the 0.4 percent gain that analysts think the government data would show if it comes out on Tuesday as scheduled. September durable goods orders are supposed to come out on Oct. 25, and Carlyle's data points to a 6.6 percent year-over-year growth, based on a Carlyle company that sells telecommunications equipment.

Inflation, meanwhile, appears to have remained quiescent. Carlyle esimates that the consumer price index rose 1.55 percent in September over a year earlier, a bit higher than the 1.2 percent year over year growth economists expect from government consumer price index data if it is released as scheduled on Oct. 17.

Carlyle's data has the strongest predictive power with new residential construction, where the company reports a 94 percent correlation with official housing starts data. And the company expects new residential construction, if released Oct. 17 as scheduled, to show a 913,000 annual rate of housing starts, about the same as the 910,000 economists forecast.

Above all, the Carlyle data, alongside other private-sector data, supports the idea that there has been no radical change in the pace of the economic recovery in the last several weeks. The depressing thing is that we have to rely on the titans of the private equity, rather than the more reliable and broad-based surveys carried out by the government statistical agencies, to parse this most basic of questions about how the nation is doing.

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Neil Irwin · October 11, 2013