A small increase proposed in the budget of the federal agency that tracks U.S. economic growth would help produce faster and more accurate readings of the economy, Commerce Department officials said.
President Bush's fiscal 2004 budget, due out Monday, includes a $5.4 million increase for the department's Bureau of Economic Analysis. The bureau's budget is less than $70 million.
The new money would allow the bureau to collect more "real time" data, such as that collected by scanners at supermarket checkout counters, to improve the accuracy of such figures as the gross domestic product and to speed up their release. The agency also would begin a quarterly survey of international transactions in services, such as the large and growing worldwide insurance market, to pick up changes in trade patterns more quickly.
"It is particularly important to keep economic measures up to date during periods of economic uncertainty," said Kathleen B. Cooper, the undersecretary for economic affairs.
J. Steven Landefeld, director of the Bureau of Economic Analysis, said gaps in his agency's ability to get up-to-date data caused it to be slow to spot the weakness in the economy that developed in 2000 and turned into a recession in 2001. As a result, the bureau had to make major revisions in its GDP numbers for those years when better data became available.
Last year Bush sought a $10.7 million increase for the bureau to begin improvements. The House included the money in its version of the fiscal 2003 Commerce Department appropriation bill, but the Senate reduced it by about $3 million. Those differences are being reconciled in a House-Senate conference.
Use of new money also hinges on the Census Bureau's budget for fiscal 2003, which began in October. The Census Bureau collects much of the raw data that the Bureau of Economic Analysis interprets, and the Senate version of the bill includes no additional money to allow faster collection of monthly figures on international trade. Without faster collection, quarterly GDP figures could not be released two weeks after the end of a quarter instead of four weeks as they are now, Landefeld said.
It is also unclear whether the Census Bureau will have enough money to begin a quarterly survey of sales of services, figures for many of which now are available either annually or with the results of an economic census that is conducted every five years.
"I am praying that the quarterly services survey goes through," Landefeld said.
Because of the delay in passing the appropriations bill for fiscal 2003, it was not clear until late last month that the Census Bureau would have enough money to complete its latest economic census, which was begun late last year. Questionnaires were to be returned by Feb. 12 with no assurance that there would be money available to process the data. However, both the House and Senate have included the necessary extra $35 million.