Inside the Crystal Ball: How to Make and Use Forecasts

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Just over a year later, on Nov. According to Post business reporter John Crudele, an unnamed source claimed that the Census Bureau either allowed or overlooked employees filling out fake questionnaires in a manner that lowered the unemployment rate. As evidence of a workplace environment that was supposedly conducive to such behavior, he cited the Census Bureau's firing in — two years before the presidential election — of an employee for turning in faked questionnaires in order to exaggerate to his superiors how many surveys he was able to complete.

Crudele's un-named source claimed such be-havior on the part of other Census employees continued during the election, and that the Census Bureau failed to report the problem or the earlier firing to the Labor Department. A week after Mr. Crudele leveled his charges, they were challenged by Nelson Schwartz, a business reporter for the New York Times.

He quoted former Labor Department personnel who said that the size of the monthly household survey sample — 54, — was far too large to be materially affected by a few dozen faked responses. Moreover, for September there was other corroborative evidence of stronger job formation from the separate monthly survey of employer payrolls. I mention this episode because it illustrates the degree of suspicion surrounding the veracity of government economic data.

Disappointed investors and traders and angry political partisans sometimes have complained to me that some statistic unfavorable to their trading position or political cause somehow or other has been rigged to make economic conditions appear better than they really are. It is understandable why some observers believe that the U. The belief probably stems in part from investors' experiences with data released by a few foreign governments. There have been instances where government budget statistics have been very misleading in countries struggling to maintain investor interest in government debt issues.

Or, in the case of Mexico during the debt crisis, there were delays in the Mexican government's usual release schedule for government budget and Treasury cash data.

Some observers, too, are somewhat or more suspicious of Chinese economic data. There may be incentives for regional government officials to overstate their region's economic activity so as to please senior Communist Party officials in Beijing and obtain more financial aid that is linked to a region's size and economic performance.

With the following possible exception, I do not believe that U. Government agencies are subject to ever more media scrutiny. In addition, whenever a suspiciously strong data report is issued during an election campaign, politicians are quick to encourage scrutiny by both the media and congressional investigative staffs. Another consideration is that government statistical agencies are headed by career civil servants who are generally immune from political pressures and who care about their professional reputations.

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That said, won't an incumbent president order stepped-up pre-election government spending both to stimulate the economy and produce better economic data? Undoubtedly, this happens in many countries.

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The especially surprising component was a sharp 9. Did the Obama administration order accelerated government spending for political reasons? Critics thought the rise was suspicious. After all, the surprising gain came at a time when budget legislation dictated federal spending restraint.

Then in the fourth quarter, such spending tumbled at a Critics contended that the Obama administration deliberately held back defense allocations in the previous two quarters so that such spending would stimulate the economy and boost a key economic statistic on the eve of the elections. Absent very specific evidence of communications from the administration to federal agencies either suggesting or ordering such manipulation, such charges are hard to prove. Defense spending is one of the most volatile GDP components on a quarterly basis.

Also, the third quarter of a calendar year is the final quarter of the federal fiscal year, creating a strong incentive for agencies to spend the types of earlier appropriated funds that must be spent or lost before a fiscal year ends.

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Although I doubt government officials politically manipulate reported government economic data, I have no doubt at all that the economic forecasts issued by government agencies are politically motivated at times. There is evidence of private-sector forecasts having a strategic element. Biases can reflect the business needs of different employers and the business strategies of independent forecasting firms. Forecasters in the public sector are only human and also can exhibit similar types of strategic behavior. Instead of perceived business needs biasing their forecasts, public-sector economists and their forecasts can be influenced by their perceptions of office politics in Washington.

Cost overruns in the public sector are an all too familiar example of government forecasts going awry. Are some government officials and their staffs strategically motivated to low-ball initial estimates of a proposed program's expenses? This might well have been the case with two major government cost overruns in the administration of President George W.

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Prior to the U. Both the Pentagon and Congress acknowledged the troop shortages two years later. The strategic rationales for fudging forecasts of future costs should be obvious. A government forecaster might have a personal preference for a particular policy or course of action. Also, just as in the private sector, government forecasters may consider self-preservation, in the form of promotion and job security, when contemplating a forecast at odds with an employer's specific goals.

On the other hand, there are reputational issues for public-sector forecasters, as there are for their private-sector brethren who may prize their professional integrity. Civil service laws, too, help to protect government employees from undue pressure from their appointed superiors. In my years as an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, I never felt overt pressure from my superiors to tilt my analyses and forecasts in any specific direction.

However, after reviewing a report, senior management would decide on the size of the internal distribution list. The short list limited a report's exposure and was ostensibly justified by considerations of other people's interests and their lack of time to read all of the voluminous research being churned out by the staff. However, some of my colleagues confided in me their disappointment at having a hard-researched report go only to the short list. What's a database? It can be a collection of data, articles, reports, company background, industry profiles, market identifiers, you name it.

Databases provide reliable, valuable, sophisticated information not found on Google. For details on how to use them for specific purposes i. Don't hesitate to ask.

What 12222 could bring: A look inside the crystal ball

Economics Tepper : Start. Welcome to Economics An information guide to finding data and publications to support economics courses and research at Tepper. Find the best resources for any topic? Find a particular journal article? Contact the business librarian? Get a book or article that is not at CMU? Reserve a group study room? Put material on reserve faculty? Do research after I graduate? Looking for a particular article or journal?