No government reports in shutdown; economists left in limbo

Shutdown suspends monthly data on jobs



On the first Friday of every month, a host of people are ready at 8:30 a.m. to click into the Bureau of Labor Statistics website.

It is at that moment that the bureau releases some of the most economically sensitive data it has: the monthly report on national employment, which includes the unemployment rate, the number of jobs created and the averages of wages and numbers of hours worked. The information regularly moves the financial markets.

This morning, they don't need to bother.

The partial shutdown of the federal government from the lack of congressional authorization to spend money has caused government agencies to suspend issuing reports.

On Thursday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said the Employment Situation release would not be issued "due to the lapse in funding." It added that "an alternative release date has not been scheduled."

"I was singing, 'The day the data died,' to the tune of 'American Pie,' " Heidi Shierholz, an economist with Washington D.C.-based policy organization Economic Policy Group, said when the bureau stopped updating its website Tuesday.

The Employment Situation release is just one of the many government reports that will not be issued during the shutdown. Other releases from the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Agriculture Department's Economics, Statistics and Market Information System are also on hold.

Investors use those reports to gauge the health of the economy, real estate companies scan them to see how the housing market is doing, and food producers and farmers rely on them to determine prices.

For casual observers of the economy, the monthly employment report is the star of the economic show.

"The jobs numbers are where the rubber meets the road," Ms. Shierholz said. "They are what tell the macroeconomic policymakers how their decisions are affecting the American people. It's how we know how the economy is really doing."

Usually, in the week before the Labor Department issues its employment report, economists step up and give their own forecasts. The consensus has been often overly optimistic, particularly regarding the number of jobs created.

This week, those forecasts are standing in for the official report.

Economists at PNC Bank expect that the September unemployment rate, when it is finally issued, will remain unchanged from August at 7.3 percent with an increase of 185,000 non-farm jobs.

An economic outlook paper issued by the bank, based on its survey of small and middle-market business owners, said three-quarters of the business owners say they are holding back on hiring because of weak sales, though they were more optimistic about business conditions than they were in August.

Another group, the Alliance for American Manufacturing in Washington, D.C., is asking people to help it compile its own anecdotal jobs report by sending in their comments on the jobs situation at http://americanmanufacturing.org/MyJobsReport.

While the Labor Department jobs report has the broadest appeal, other government reports are vital for a wide range of industries.

"This [shutdown] is a big deal with respect to information about agriculture," said Jim Dunn, a professor of agricultural economics at Penn State University.

Agricultural economists, commodities traders, farmers and food producers all depend on not just one, but a series of reports, such as the Weekly Weather and Crop Bulletin, which was supposed to come out Tuesday; the National Dairy Products Sales Report, which was due Wednesday; and the weekly Crop Progress Report, which is due out on Monday.

A change in weather, such as a sudden frost or heavy rain, could affect corn or soy bean production or the planting of winter wheat. Without the reports, farmers and traders can't know how crop production halfway across the country might affect prices locally.

Mr. Dunn said that while the "big players" such as Cargill Inc. or Archer Daniels Midland Co. have their own research teams, "the rest of us are kind of without our 'secret' information. It's hard to read the tea leaves if there's no tea."

Ranchers, for instance, look to the National Feeder Cattle Summary from the Agriculture Department's Agriculture Marketing Service to time cattle sales to maximize their return on investment, said Ryan Koory, an economist with IHS Global Insights agricultural services in Columbia, Mo.

His colleague Brandon Kliethermes said the Agriculture Department's reports touch every level of the agricultural markets from producers to exporters.

"It's not just U.S. futures traders who are flying blind. It's also those across the world as well," Mr. Koory said.

While the Bureau of Labor Statistics has left its website up for researching past reports, the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis have replaced their regular home pages with statements that "due to the lapse in government funding, [the websites] will be unavailable until further notice."

Other key government economic reports not issued because of the shutdown are the construction spending report that was due Tuesday and the manufactured goods report that was supposed to come out Thursday.

The longer the government shutdown lasts, the more reports that won't be showing up.

Next week, the schedule calls for government agencies to release reports on the international trade balance, monthly wholesale inventories and advance monthly retail sales.

nation - businessnews

Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699. First Published October 4, 2013 4:00 AM


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