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 Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy Alan B. Krueger before the National Association for Business Economics on “Stress Testing Economic Data”



St. Louis, MO

Subjecting a person, institution, or social system to extraordinary stress often reveals strengths and weaknesses that were previously hidden.   As many have noted, the recent economic crisis has highlighted significant weaknesses in our financial and regulatory systems--weaknesses that policymakers are currently acting to address.   However, the crisis has also revealed an important weakness in another sphere, which has received considerably less attention--specifically, the data and statistics that policymakers and others use to assess the performance of the economy and its future prospects, and to evaluate the effectiveness of public policies.  The economic crisis has given an unintended stress test of our economic and financial indicators.  

While I am relatively well acquainted with the uses of economic data--before joining the Administration I led a million-dollar research effort called the Princeton Data Improvement Initiative that evaluated the reliability of the government statistical agencies' main economic indicators, such as payroll employment--in my current job I have been constantly surprised at how little quantitative information can be brought to bear on fundamental policy questions, or, alternatively, how difficult it can be to find valid data on important and well-defined economic variables.   In part, this reflects a lack of timeliness of certain key statistics; it also reflects the fact that existing data are not useable or sufficiently detailed, or that relevant data simply do not exist.  

 Dashboards and 10,000 Mile Check Ups

In thinking about the kinds of data that policymakers employ, I find the analogy of a car to be helpful.   First, the car has a dashboard whose indicators--speedometer, thermometer, fuel gauge--all contribute to telling the driver about the car's current state and performance.   To stretch the analogy to the macroeconomy, the dials and gauges on the dashboard represent statistics like payroll employment, GDP or the CPI--data that are directly relevant for steering the economy in the near term.  

A dashboard is a common analogy, but not everything that is relevant for a car's performance is summarized on its dashboard.   That is why, every 10,000 miles or so, we bring our car into the garage for a checkup--a look under the hood--in order to ensure the car's longer-term performance.   In the case of an economy, such a checkup draws on statistics that paint a broader picture about the economy's and society's underlying health.   For example, GDP can tell us whether the economy is contracting, but it tells us less about whether the composition of demand is sustainable over the longer term and it tells us nothing about whether income is equitably distributed.   GDP also does not tell us whether resources are being used wisely to maximize the well-being of society.   For example, pollution and other negative externalities are not subtracted from GDP.   Hence, when thinking about the longer-term health of the economy we also turn to statistics like the poverty rate, or the state of consumers' finances, or the state of the environment.

Clearly, then, both types of data are useful for setting policy:   For example, the first sort of data will often be used to provide guideposts for stabilization policy, while the second sort might help inform policies to raise the quality of life in the longer-term.   In addition, both types of statistics are useful for forward-looking analyses to the extent that they can reveal underlying imbalances in the economy, or help derive forecasting models, or help identify causal relationships.  

My main theme today is that limitations of statistics of both the dashboard variety and 10,000 mile check up were revealed in the current crisis. We can learn from the economic meltdown of last year how to do a better job producing the statistics that can help steer the economy during a crisis and reduce the odds of other crises from occurring.   I will focus more on the high-frequency dashboard-type indicators but both types of statistics need attention.    

Data Deficiencies

The dashboard and check-up analogy highlights six of the major deficiencies with our current economic statistics.

·          First, even some of our higher-frequency gauges are insufficiently timely--it is as if you only had a speedometer that told you your speed five minutes ago.   This means that policymakers often need to consider more up-to-date--but possibly less precise or reliable--sources of data (in the speedometer example, for instance, one might try to gauge one's speed by seeing how quickly the trees on the side of the road are going by; in a similar fashion, we sometimes use weekly data on chain store sales to try to assess consumer spending).

Timeliness is typically even more of a problem for the sorts of data that are useful in performing the economy's 10,000 mile checkup.   For example, the Federal Reserve produces an excellent survey called the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) that provides an invaluable detailed look at the state of households' financial health.   But this survey is released only once every three years, with well more than a year's lag between the last year of the survey and the release date. [1]  And there are not any real substitutes for the types of measures found in this survey.

·          Second, to the extent that each of the various statistics tells us something important--and different--about the economy, we need to have many of them (in the case of the dashboard, a better analogy might be to the cockpit gauges in an airplane).   This is a problem because resources for data collection and processing are finite; it also means that we will need to choose which pieces of data to focus on, especially when different measures are giving different signals about the state of the economy.

·          Third, and related, there is no sufficient statistic for judging the health of the economy or society.   This applies both within the dashboard-type statistics and the 10,000-mile-check-up statistics, and between them.   Joseph Stiglitz has argued that we got into this crisis partly because policymakers focused too much attention on GDP as an indicator of economic success, and there was no indication in the GDP figures that a crisis was brewing.   Although GDP is the best-developed broad measure of economic performance, it can provide a misleading gauge of the quality of life or sustainability of an economy, as the report from Stiglitz's recent commission on the measurement of economic performance has emphasized. [2] 

·          Fourth, the data we have might not measure what we want them to measure--though typically we aren't able to tell when a given statistic is invalid, or to what degree.   Importantly, this problem isn't always mitigated simply because a statistic is well constructed or well understood.   For example, it is generally agreed that the CPI-- the most studied and timeliest measure of consumer price inflation--is an imperfect measure of the "true cost of living", an elusive but nonetheless conceptually desirable measurement goal that in its broadest form would attempt, for example, to estimate the impact on welfare of such things as new products, medical advances, and even market place variety.   There are many well-known biases that arise when the CPI is used to measure the cost of living.   After much study the magnitude and even the direction of many of these biases are not precisely known.

·          Fifth, even with large samples, some of our timely data can be unreliable in a statistical sense.   For example, the a bsolute annual benchmark revisions to nonfarm payrolls have averaged 0.2 percent over the past decade, with a range from 0.1 percent to 0.6 percent – and this year the preliminary benchmark adjustment was 0.6 percent, suggesting much deeper job loss last year than originally reported.   As another example, the annual (absolute) revision to quarterly real GDP growth has averaged 0.4 percentage points in the last few years.  

·          Finally, and probably most importantly, in many cases useful data are simply not available--either gauges are missing from the dashboard, or we lack the measurement techniques that we need for the 10,000 mile checkup.   In part, this also reflects the finite resources available for data collection; on a deeper level, though, this situation arises because the conceptual basis of measurement tends to lag both economic theory and real-world events.   Hence, comprehensive national income statistics did not really exist until the Great Depression highlighted the importance of being able to measure aggregate demand accurately and Keynesian theories of national income determination provided a framework for doing so.   More recently, statisticians have had to wrestle with the problem of measuring production and prices in a dynamic economy with rapid technological progress in some sectors and a greater secular shift toward intangible output (like services).   The importance of getting this right cannot be overstated, as former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan clearly indicated in a speech to this Association eight years ago.

I would also note in passing that many of these problems intersect in important ways; for instance, the timeliness of the data used in constructing the GDP accounts (both the direct source data as well as the data from the input-output tables that underpin the accounts) will significantly affect the reliability of the final estimates of output and economic growth.    

Lessons from Recent Experience

As I mentioned, the recent economic crisis has thrown several of these problems into especially stark relief.   I will spend the rest of my time discussing a few noteworthy examples from recent events, and then make a modest recommendation as to how some of these problems might be mitigated.

Timeliness:   The fact that many key indicators are released with a lag is especially problematic when stabilization policies are being contemplated or implemented.   Recently, the government concluded its Car Allowance Rebate System program ("Cash for Clunkers"), which was intended to bring forward consumer spending on motor vehicles.   While anecdotal evidence and data on rebate filings confirmed that the program was in fact raising vehicle sales, a critical piece of information that policymakers lacked was the extent to which increased car sales were coming at the expense of other components of consumer spending.   The Survey of Consumer Expenditures will eventually provide strong evidence on questions like, "Did the increase in car sales come at the expense of contemporaneous dishwasher sales?" For now, we rely on the fact that consumption increased strongly outside of autos in August 2009 to infer that cash-for-clunkers added to aggregate demand.  

This experience illustrates the need for flexibility in data collection, especially when policymakers consider extending new policies or need to evaluate them in real time for other reasons.   Ideally, some sort of "rapid response" data gathering capacity that could be tailored to answer specific, one-shot questions -- such as changes in consumption of households with and without clunkers -- would be available. [3] 

More broadly, the nature of the recent crisis has made it essential to have comprehensive and timely high-frequency data on bank lending, consumer and firm borrowing, and household balance sheets.   In most cases, however, such data are hard to come by:   While the Federal Reserve's Flow of Funds Accounts have the depth and coverage required for many applications, they are only produced quarterly and with a lag.  

Unfortunately, the high-frequency data that we have on bank lending relate to outstanding loans, not loan originations.   Such data were fine before the securitizations market mushroomed and banks kept loans on their books.   But in an era when banks bundle and sell their loans to nonbanks – or, just as problematic – in a period when the securitization market freezes and banks are unable to remove their loans from their balance sheets – the growth in banks' outstanding loans gives a misleading picture of the amount of new credit being extended. [4]   In the current environment, we need timely data on loans originated by banks and, as David Scharfstein has emphasized, on the extent to which businesses' lines of credit are being drawn down.  

A related problem is that half of lending before the financial crisis took place outside of banks.   Yet our timely measures are mostly geared toward the sort of bank lending that George Bailey saw in the course of his wonderful life. These problems arose in large part because rapid developments in the financial sector outstripped our data collection efforts and regulatory framework.  

Unreliable or invalid data:   Most of you are well aware of the problems that are caused by revisions to the national accounts and establishment employment survey.   In addition, different measures of similar or identical concepts--such as Gross Domestic Product and Gross Domestic Income, or the CPI and PCE price index--can send very different signals about the state of the economy.  

Data can become invalid when a well-established, accurate and reliable measure fails to keep pace with events.   For instance, while the Mortgage Bankers Association collects useful and comprehensive data on mortgage delinquency rates, their measures do not properly account for trial loan modifications.   Instead, loans modified on a trial basis continue to be reported as delinquent even if they are current.   Of course, this situation reflects the fact that loan modifications were not an issue until recently.   But over 500,000 mortgages have undergone trial modifications as a result of the Administration's Home Affordable Modification Program SM.   Accounting for the number of loans in modifications is critical for interpreting statistics on delinquencies.  

Historically, loan modification data have not been collected in a systematic fashion.   Recent data collection efforts have been undertaken by OCC-OTS and Hope Now.   The difficulty caused by the lack of quality data on modifications provides an illustrative example of both how government institutions can develop timely data sources and the caution we need to exercise when trying to develop policy and create new data simultaneously.   The OCC-OTS stepped into the breach in 2008 and began collecting timely and accurate data on loan modifications.   However, when the OCC-OTS survey was introduced there was no distinction between modifications that lowered monthly payments and those that raised payments.   As a result, the initial modification statistics showed very high re-default rates resulting in a widespread view that "modifications" don't work.   More recent data, however, underscore the importance of affordability in successful modifications.  

Missing data:    By far the most important problem that the recent crisis has highlighted is the near-complete lack of information that we have for a number of key economic variables.   I will discuss two examples from the world of finance and two from housing markets.  

·          1) The importance of hedge funds in financial markets has grown steadily over time.   Yet we lack detailed data on hedge fund positions.   Indeed, the Flow of Funds Accounts implicitly include hedge funds in the household sector, which is in turn an artifact of the accounts' treating the household sector as a residual.  

·          2) We lack information on the degree of interconnectedness between financial institutions and other market participants--for instance, data on counterparties to derivative transactions are almost completely lacking.   As a result, it is difficult to assess systemic risk in the financial system.

·          In this context, I should mention that a crucial feature of President Obama's regulatory reform proposal is that it would create a mechanism and institutional framework for collecting essential financial data that are currently unavailable, and that would be unavailable in the next financial crisis if the President's reform proposal is not enacted.   For example, by bringing all standard derivatives onto an exchange, information about counterparty risks would be available.   And requiring hedge funds to register with the SEC would help fill the current paucity of data on hedge funds.  These data, in turn, would enable federal regulators to more effectively carry out its mission of spotting risks and interconnections that threaten the entire system.  

·          3)   Returning to my list of missing data, we currently lack information on the amount saved from mortgage refinancing activity, which limits the ability to gauge the macroeconomic effects of refinancing.   This compounds the problem that information on the number of loans that are refinanced (as opposed to applications for refinancing) is not available on a timely basis.  

·          4)   Finally, an especially serious deficiency with existing data on the housing market is the lack of any attempt to integrate household characteristics -- such as income, employment status, and demographic data -- with data on mortgage payments, delinquencies, and loan-to-value rations for a representative and recent sample.   This severely curtails our ability to understand what drives default and payment behavior, which in turn complicates the formulation of effective policy.

Improving the Dashboard and 10,000 Mile Check Up

Sir Conan Doyle famously wrote, "It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data."   I believe this holds true even in the midst of an economic crisis, although Sherlock Holmes might also have appreciated that it can be a capital mistake to wait until one has complete data to act in the midst of a panic.  

As I mentioned, some of the most pressing gaps that surfaced in our financial data in the last year, such as counterparty risks in the derivatives market, would be addressed if the Administration's regulatory reform proposals were enacted.   But new gaps in the data infrastructure will likely arise as the financial sector evolves.   For this reason, an important function of the Oversight Council of Regulators in the Administration's proposal would be to scan the horizon for new financial market developments that necessitate new data collection efforts, so that regulators can accurately assess system-wide risks in a timely fashion.  

It is obvious that many of the other problems that I have outlined could be solved or mitigated by providing more funding for statistical offices, either to permit them to expand the types of data that they collect (or purchase from private sources), or to improve existing measures -- or perhaps even create a rapid response survey capability in one or more of the government statistical agencies.  

In recent years, however, the budgets of statistical agencies have been neglected.   From 1998 to 2008, real government spending on statistical agencies increased by only 4 percent. [5]  By contrast, real discretionary government spending increased by 62 percent and real GDP increased by 32 percent in this period.   Now the optimal allocation of resources to economic statistics might not growth linearly with the size of the economy, but I suspect that it grows at least with its square root, especially in a period when financial activity is becoming more complex and economic output less tangible.

Fortunately, support for the statistical agencies has been stronger more recently. As a NABE newsletter pointed out, the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009 that president Obama signed in March restored many of the statistical programs that the previous Administration tried to cut, such as the American Time Use Survey, and provided funding for long overdue initiatives, such as the housing sample in the CPI.    In addition, President Obama's budget proposal for 2010 would increase funding for the statistical agencies by 8.5 percent – an indication of the commitment the President has made to basing policy decisions on evidence.  

For the foreseeable future, however, economic policy-makers will have to consult privately collected data in many areas.   Therefore, I would like to make a modest proposal -- that we leverage private sources of economic data to improve our statistical infrastructure.   There already are many precedents for using privately collected data or data from trade sources to construct government economic statistics; for example, the National Income and Product Accounts draw on several private data sources (most notably Ward's Automotive Reports), as do the Flow of Funds accounts.   Of course, these data sources are only employed if they are judged to be of sufficiently high quality, which means that they must be well understood, well constructed, and consistently measured over time.   Correspondingly, data that meet these criteria are more likely to be helpful for policy analysis, but one has to be careful in making this determination given that the organizations that collect and disseminate such data sometimes have self-interest as well as public service in mind.  

A useful goal, therefore, is to try to have more types of privately collected data that meet high standards of transparency and scientific design.   One way to achieve this is to have a minimal set of guidelines for data collection and construction, combined with a process to certify that a given statistic meets these standards.   For instance, producers of survey-based data would need to be encouraged to provide information about response rates, sample construction, and how any constructed measures are defined, and would need to make their survey instrument public.   Knowing this would, at a minimum, allow comparison with a set of best practices.   This process does not need to be done by the government.   Indeed, something like what I have described already exists for opinion polling:   The American Association for Public Opinion Research has a set of guidelines that lists information that opinion polls should disclose, and has in the past censured polls that do not meet its standards.  Guidelines could be established for privately collected economic data, which often are derived from administrative records that were originally collected for purposes other than economic analysis.  

Once an agreed-upon set of technical and documentation standards was in place, a procedure would need to be developed to periodically certify that a given statistical series satisfied these requirements.   The responsibility for such certification could also be placed in the hands of a private organization, preferably one with a demonstrated interest in and commitment to excellence in economic data.   Indeed, an organization like NABE would be a perfect candidate to act in this capacity -- perhaps in conjunction with AAPOR -- as this duty would dovetail well with NABE's longstanding encouragement of statistical best practice.  

By working along this intensive margin--making existing privately collected data more useful for policymakers and policy discussions--we could likely enjoy large improvements in our knowledge of the economy at relatively little cost.   We could also work on the extensive margin, by providing more information to private organizations about which key data series policymakers, business leaders and others currently lack.  

I think we would all agree that it is a capital mistake if we do not make efforts to enhance our economic data to improve policymaking and to prevent future financial crises if these enhancements could be had at little or no additional expense.   Thank you very much.

[1] The SCF is including a supplement this year, however, in response to fact that 2007 asset values and data are already out of date.   Another improvement to the SCF would be to collect longitudinal data, which would enable researchers to examine changes in household finances over time.  

[2] In the interest of full disclosure, I should acknowledge that I was a member of the Stiglitz commission before being required to resign to take my current position in the government.  

[3] This type of capacity could also be useful measuring the economic impact of an epidemic, such as H1N1.  

[4] To fill some of these gaps in our knowledge and help assess the efficacy of government policies to shore up the financial sector, at the start of this year the Treasury Department began surveying the largest participants in the Capital Purchase Program in order to provide a monthly "snapshot" of bank lending activity, including loan originations.

[5] The agencies for this calculation include the Bureau of the Census, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bureau of Economic Analysis, Statistics of Income (IRS), National Agricultural Statistics Service, Economic Research Service, Energy Information Administration,   National Center for Health Statistics, National Center for Education Statistics, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, and Sciences Resources Statistics (NSF).   Periodic spending for the Census is excluded.  


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