Binyamin Appelbaum recently highlighted the measurement problems we have with US data. Not only are the data often very slow to arrive, there can be substantial revisions to many series after they are released and the revisions can change the picture of the economy substantially.
As I’ve written about before, I would like to see resources devoted to improving our ability to understand the state of the economy in (near) real time. The lack of accurate data made it much more difficult to respond to the current recession, e.g. (this was December 2009 and is far from the only example where revisions told a very different story than the initial relase):
When it was announced two months ago that GDP had grown by 3.5 percent in the third quarter of this year, it took the sails out of any movement toward another stimulus package. Now the number has been revised downward to 2.2 percent.
At a growth rate of 3.5 percent, the economy would be growing slightly faster than the long-run trend so that, although progress would be very, very slow, the economy would at least be catching up to the long-run trend (in the recovery from previous recessions, it was not unusual for GDP to grow at 6 or 7 percent…). At a growth rate of 2.2 percent, the economy is not even treading water let alone making up for past losses.
The economy needs more help, but the 3.5 percent initial figure was heralded as the sign that better times were just around the corner. This undermined the case for a new fiscal stimulus package and likely caused the Fed to back off of any further plans it might have had to do more to help the economy recover. …
This points to the fact that policymakers need better and more timely data. The fourth quarter is almost over yet we are still trying to figure out what happened in the third quarter, and we still don’t know for sure. There has been lots of criticism of how policymakers have reacted in this recession, much of it deserved, but little of that discussion has recognized the data problems. … If we can give policymakers better and more timely guidance about the state of the economy, it could improve policy considerably, and that would be money well spent.
In any case, let me say one more time as loudly as I can that given the data that we do have, it’s clear that the economy — the labor market in particular — needs more help.
But if we are stuck with what we have, as we are, then this is a sensible suggestion:
Focus On Unemployment To Measure Output Gap, by Mathew Ygesias: Sveriges Riksbank deputy governor Lars E.O. Svensson, my favorite central banker, delivered a speech a few months ago (it’s English title “For a Better Monetary Policy: Focus on Inflation and Unemployment” makes it sound totally banal but it’s not) that had bearing on the question of what’s a policymaker to do in a world where government statisticians can’t accurately measure recessions fast enough to do stabilization policy. He argues that we should forget about the GDP output gap and just pay attention to unemployment:
I believe instead that the unemployment gap is the most appropriate measure of resource utilisation. There are several reasons for this. Unemployment is measured often and is not revised. GDP on the other hand is measured less often and is highly uncertain, and major revisions are made. Unemployment is also directly related to welfare – one of the worst things that can happen to a household is that one of the members of the household loses his or her job. Unemployment is also the indicator of resource utilisation that is best known and easiest for the public to understand. The preparatory works for the Sveriges Riksbank Act state that the Riksbank should support the objectives of general economic policy. One of the main objectives of economy policy in Sweden is to limit unemployment, for example by improving the functioning of the labour market and increasing the incentives to look for work.
Sounds good to me.
This post originally appeared at Economist’s View and is reproduced here with permission.