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Government Will Be Back in Numbers Game

From Bloomberg Business News

After idling for a month, the U.S. Commerce Department’s statistics-production machine kicks into gear again today with the publication of economic data put on hold when the government was shut down in December.

Starting with November housing starts, the department will be releasing reports postponed first by the partial government shutdown and then by the Blizzard of ’96. The Commerce Department last week issued a revised schedule of releases for economic reports.

The new schedule “serves the level of statistical quality that we demand of the data we put out,” said Everett Ehrlich, undersecretary of commerce for economic affairs. “There won’t be any gaps in the series that we have,” he said.

Instead, “the damage is on the timeliness side,” he said. “We want the data to be of use to market analysts, not to historians.” Investors, analysts and policymakers follow the Commerce and Labor departments’ economic data to gauge the health of the U.S. economy.

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Among the Commerce Department indicators to be postponed were reports on third- and fourth-quarter gross domestic product, October and November international trade, and January retail sales.

“It’ll take us probably through April or perhaps May to get back completely to the pre-disruption schedule,” Ehrlich said.

That means some key reports won’t be out in time for consideration by the Federal Reserve Board’s policymaking Open Market Committee at its meeting at the end of this month to decide interest rate policy.

The Labor Department said last week that it would not announce new dates for its closely watched inflation and employment reports until today at the earliest. However, the department will resume release of its weekly jobless claims report on Thursday. The primary jobless figures will be for the week ended Jan. 13, although the report will cover the entire period of the shutdown.

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“We have a shot at getting retail sales for December in time for the Federal Reserve meeting,” Ehrlich said. The report will be released sometime during the week of Jan. 29, but “we’re trying to figure out when in that week it will come,” he said.

Census Department surveyors next week will begin conducting the interviews used to calculate the January unemployment rate, originally set for release Feb. 2. Because of the data backlog, “we don’t know if we’ll make it in the first week of February,” he said.

The latest shutdown, which lasted from Dec. 16 through Jan. 6, was the second of the current battle between President Clinton and the Republican-led Congress over how to balance the federal budget by 2002. The first shutdown, in November, lasted six days.

House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich (R-Ohio) said Sunday on NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press” that House Republicans are unlikely to shut down the federal government again when the current temporary spending bill runs out Jan. 26. Instead, Kasich said, his party plans to fund the government through “targeted appropriations,” which could mean deep cuts for the Commerce Department.

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Another complete shutdown “would be devastating” for the nation’s economic statistics and “would have repercussions through the end of the year,” Ehrlich said.

Privately produced reports, such as the National Assn. of Purchasing Management’s monthly index and the Conference Board’s index of consumer confidence, cannot substitute for government statistics, as they “talk about one segment of the industry” or “only poll a membership instead of a random sample,” Ehrlich said. “The data we provide are unique in the sense of their scope and their detail and their accuracy,” he said.

“The understudy has been playing the leading role in the last month.”


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