Government shutdown threatens access to key economic data

Among the many public services that Americans will miss if the partial government shutdown continues beyond this week, here's a big one: data.Federal...

Posted: Dec 26, 2018 3:52 PM
Updated: Dec 26, 2018 4:15 PM

Among the many public services that Americans will miss if the partial government shutdown continues beyond this week, here's a big one: data.

Federal statistical agencies produce a steady stream of reports on how the economy is doing, where investment is flowing, and who the United States is trading with. Starting this week, those updates will slow to a trickle.

The Department of Labor is funded through September 2019, so the monthly jobs report scheduled for early January will remain on time. (The 2013 shutdown delayed the jobs report by 18 days.) Indicators like costs and productivity will also be released during a shutdown.

But both the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Census Bureau, which belong to the Department of Commerce, have ceased providing updates and can only resume after Congress and the White House agree on a deal. The same is true of the Department of Agriculture, which produces data on crop production, prices and sales.

Normally, a delayed release is not a huge problem. But these are not normal times.

The financial markets are swinging wildly, the President is railing against the Federal Reserve, and the Treasury Secretary is holding calls with bankers to make sure they have enough money to keep lending.

'Because we're already experiencing heightened volatility, this just adds another combustible element into the mix,' says Joe Brusuelas, chief economist for the consulting firm RSM US.

A data drought would be particularly concerning around international trade, because of the several rounds of tariffs that the economy is still digesting, with another round potentially set to go into effect in March, depending on the outcome of negotiations between Trump and his Chinese counterpart. If economists don't know what effect the trade wars are having, they could be in for a shock when the numbers finally do come in.

This week, the BEA was only scheduled to report on the United States' international investment position for the third quarter. International trade figures for November are scheduled to be released on January 8. The Census Bureau had been planning to report on public pensions for the third quarter and residential sales, with more international trade data.

'The uncertainty tax that we have now mostly has to do with trade,' Brusuelas says. 'You add a layer of lack of data on top of that, then you start to run into problems.'

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