Economic data is becoming an increasingly noticeable casualty of the partial U.S. government shutdown. The government offices that are closed include the Commerce Department, one of the most prolific producers of reports followed by economists, businesses and investors. Delayed reports, and any long-term data distortions caused by this blackout period, will make it hard to assess the health of the world’s largest economy.
1. How much data does the U.S. government release?
Dozens of reports each month on topics ranging from consumer spending to housing, business investment, and trade, are issued by the Commerce Department, one of the nine departments that have been closed since Dec. 22, when their funding ran out. The Labor Department, also a major producer of data such as the monthly jobs report, is open for business because Congress and President Donald Trump managed earlier to reach agreement on its 2019 appropriations.
2. What reporting is affected?
Commerce’s broad umbrella includes the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis, two major contributors to public data. Reporting delayed so far includes new home sales (issued jointly by Census and the Department of Housing and Urban Development), trade balance, construction spending, factory orders and inventories. The figures are normally issued on weekdays at 8:30 a.m. or 10 a.m., many times in conjunction with Labor Department reports. If the shutdown continues until the end of January, reports on retail sales, housing starts, durable goods, gross domestic product and personal income and spending also may be held back.
3. Is the problem limited to Commerce?
No. The shutdown forced the postponement of the Department of Agriculture’s Jan. 11 monthly market-moving report that details supply and demand estimates for crops across the globe. And the Commodity Futures Trading Commission has stopped releasing its weekly Commitments of Traders reports, which track managed money across oil, agriculture and metals markets.
4. What about the Federal Reserve?
The U.S. central bank is operating as normal because it’s funded by its own revenue stream. The Fed’s December report on industrial production, which incorporates Labor Department figures, remains on track for release Jan. 18. The consumer credit report includes student-loan data from the Education Department, which is open. But if the shutdown continues until the Fed’s next policy meeting on Jan. 29-30, members won’t have fourth-quarter GDP in hand as it decides how to portray its interest-rate outlook. Gaps in key data make it harder for officials to assess the economy’s momentum and how their policy of gradually raising interest rates is filtering through it, at a time they’ve increasingly emphasized their decisions will be data-dependent.
5. What happens when government eventually reopens?
There are more questions than answers about how and when the delayed data might get released. Even after the data begin getting released, it will easily take a couple of months before the Commerce Department’s release calendar returns to normal. A 16-day shutdown in October 2013 that affected a larger number of reports (because the Labor Department was closed as well) sparked doubts about the accuracy of some key measures for months afterward. For example, part-time employees weren’t able to go out during the shutdown to collect inflation data for the consumer price index.
6. Is there any other place to get data?
Economy watchers can turn to information from non-government sources, including home sales from the National Association of Realtors, retail figures from private researchers and consumer sentiment surveys, though cumulatively they provide a less-complete picture than government reports. Forecasting firms and traders are attempting to come up with their own crop estimates amid delays in the Department of Agriculture’s data. Gro Intelligence, a closely held data and analytics company, was among those trying to fill the void.
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