You could make a fortune on the CPI.
For the first time in the history of the American marketplace, small investors, individuals and speculators of all sorts will have a direct chance to make or lose money based solely on statistics compiled by the departments of Labor and Commerce. The Commodities Futures Trading Commission has just allowed trading on the Consumer Price Index to begin June 21; trading based on housing starts and new automobile sales may not be far behind.
Henceforth, such statistics will not only serve as guides to the state of the economy; they will also be instruments of trade, just like stocks, bonds, art and soybeans. John Q. Investor will have an opportunity to make a fortune or throw away everything based entirely on his skill at guessing the numbers released by the federal government. One obvious result is that those who really know their Washington economic numbers can make a healthy living. A second consequence is that the unsophisticated investor will have one more opportunity to lose it all -- and, just to put a little icing on his cake of destitution, there will be one additional chance to grouse at the feds.
The initiative to start trading in Washington numbers was taken three years ago by a New York exchange called the "Coffee, Sugar and Cocoa Exchange." One would have thought that this organization would more naturally have invented trade in such areas as Arbitron ratings of TV programs with breakfast-product advertisements. But, instead, it looks as if we will now have government data for dollars.
In the abstract, the concept of trading in these numbers has a sound economic base. Manufacturers in all kinds of industries can already protect themselves when they buy futures contracts that are similar to these new proposals. Such commodities as lumber, oil and coffee are traded regularly. In this way, if there is a sudden upheaval in the world marketplace, the businesses will not be devastated. Since so many companies can have their hard work and financial planning destroyed by harsh and unexpected economic disasters, futures contracts in government data offer them the opportunity to minimize such risk. Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Samuelson, among others, has endorsed the idea.
But to the folks in civil service, the actual implementation of such an idea is fraught with danger.
John Early is an assistant secretary in the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At age 40 with 13 years of experience at BLS, he may know as much as anyone about how, on a day-to-day basis, the consumer price index is compiled. "Our main concerns are technical -- how are we going to enhance security measures," Early says. "With all of this money changing hands, the desire to know what we know rises quickly."
This senior government official says he has never before had to be so concerned with security, for the issuance of the CPI has never had a distinct and omnipotent effect on markets. It is always taken into account as one of several factors that will affect a stock or a commodity price. A contract on the CPI, however, means that all the money is based on his CPI number.
"We're talking about the fact that for several days before we go public, the CPI numbers are more or less in their final form and are seen by several people in these offices," he says. "As I understand it, there'll be millions of dollars riding on these statistics, and these numbers already exist before they're made public. It's not like pork bellies, for instance, where the number is not and cannot be known until the date of the transaction."
Expenses just to run the operation may be high. Early admits he has no expertise in security problems, but says he has been told it will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars just for the preliminary investigation to find out how to increase security and, in effect, to reorganize methods of collecting data.
"In a sense we will have to work like the Defense Department," Early says. "They assume surreptitious work by Soviets who want secrets; we will assume that participants in the exchange will want what we have."
Another concern has been raised by Roger Bugenhagen, the assistant director for economic surveys at the Department of Commerce. He concedes that "he does not look forward to trading in his numbers."
"These figures," he says, "are produced for public and private policies and programs; they should not be mixed up with transactions." There is already such sensitivity about his numbers, the statistician says, that the secretary of commerce, the man who oversees the Census Bureau, cannot see the numbers until after they are released. Instead, the only people who see them are the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and the president.
Whether one describes this new undertaking as a ripoff of the taxpayer or a casino with new games or as a wholesome economic development, the stakes will be high. Move over military-industrial complex: make room for the statistician-trader network.