Enlightened Economics

Economics for an Enlightened Age

Posts Tagged ‘John Williams’

• Dubious Positive Biases in Revised U.S. Economic Statistics

Posted by Ron Robins on April 9, 2014

Why do most of the methodologically revised U.S. economic statistics tend to create a picture of a more positive looking economy? Do these revised statistics really give a better—or illusory—understanding of economic activity? And is it coincidental that the benefits flowing from these more positive looking statistics largely accrue to powerful elites who also have the muscle to influence the statistical methodologies? Now those who should be investigating and informing us of these concerns, our economists and media, fail to do so.

We see this ‘positive bias’ appearing in the most important economic statistics, including unemployment rates, payroll numbers, the consumer price index (CPI), savings rates, and gross domestic product (GDP).

Considering the unemployment rates and payroll numbers, we find that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has implemented many changes that have resulted in lower unemployment rates and higher payroll numbers.

One particular change in 1994 to the unemployment rate was most significant. At that time the BLS decided to exclude the long-term (over one-year) unemployed discouraged workers from measurement. The chart below, from ShadowStats, shows that revised rate, now referred to as the Official U3 rate, as the red line.

The unemployment rate including these long-term unemployed discouraged persons is the ShadowStats blue line. The broadest government unemployment rate U6 is the gray line, which ShadowStats says, includes “short-term discouraged and other marginally attached workers as well as those forced to work part-time because they cannot find full-time employment.”

Using March 2014 unemployment data, notice the huge difference in unemployment rates between the pre 1994 methodology, which ShadowStats estimates at 23.2%, and the much-publicized Official U3 rate of just 6.7% and U6 at 12.7%!


With reference to the BLS payrolls data, John Williams, ShadowStats founder, has regularly spotted “spurious revisions used to spike payroll employment levels.” He said of the March 2014 payroll report, that, “[The] increase of 192,000 was bloated heavily by concealed and constantly shifting seasonal adjustments… [that the] numbers remain of horrendous quality… generally not comparable with earlier reporting.”

Methodological changes to the CPI are also worrisome. Some non-government consumer price indices show exactly how much the government CPI has understated inflation that’s relevant to most people’s everyday experience. One such index is Guild Investment Management’s (GIM), Guild Basic Needs Index (GBNI). GIM says that because the BLS, “periodically alters its [CPI] content, making adjustments to the weighting of the components, and smoothing seasonal patterns. [That,] such tinkering with data… usually results in an understatement of the inflation rate and creates an unreliable, misleading cost of living index.”

The GBNI includes food, clothing, shelter and energy, covering 50-80% of most people’s expenditures. From the chart below see how over the five years to January 31, 2014, the annual increase in the GBNI was 4.7%, versus 2.1% for the CPI.

ShadowStats has re-worked the CPI as the BLS measured it with a fixed basket of goods in 1990 (see below), and in 1980 (not shown). Using the 1990 measure annual inflation in February 2014 was running at about 5%, blue line, versus under 2%, red line, for the Official CPI-U.

Changes to the personal savings rate methodology are of concern too. Negative personal savings rates in the past decade became positive. For instance, the personal savings rate (as a percentage of disposable personal income) in 2006 and 2007 was about -2% but has become +3% after revisions. Methodological changes in personal incomes and certain pension benefits, etc., had the effect of enhancing personal savings rates.

Regarding GDP, we see it has benefited from arguably bureaucratically lowered inflation rates. To arrive at ‘real’ U.S. GDP, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) reduces nominal (current prices) GDP by BEA’s own inflation measure. According to Mr. Williams, this measure shares many similarities to the CPI. One example is that it includes “quality-adjusted price indexes to deflate goods and services.” Hence, if a new computer has the same price as one several years ago but is many times more powerful, its price would now be deemed much, much lower, thereby lowering BEA’s price index and thus increasing real GDP.

To see exactly how these methodologies upwardly bias GDP, consider that BEA reported real GDP for 2013 at 1.9%. However, using the SGS-Alternate GDP that eliminates, as ShadowStats says, some of the “distortions in government inflation usage and methodological changes that have resulted in a built-in upside bias to official reporting,” real 2013 GDP would be about 4% lower and negative at around -2%!

These questionable brighter-looking statistics could be creating the illusion of a better economy. Coincidentally, such a possibly falsified, better-looking economy, greatly benefits some key political and financial elites who just happen to have disproportionate power to influence government statistical methods.

ShadowStats gives examples of the Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush (first) and Clinton administrations engaging in acts to alter various economic statistics so as to put their respective administrations in a brighter light.

And the economic elite benefiting most from these more positive looking statistics pumping up the bond and stock markets are the ultra rich. Moreover, it is they who have an out sized influence on legislators and government policies and perhaps the most interest in adding gloss to the statistics.

Regrettably, those who should be critiquing and providing insight for the public about the meaning and consequences of the methodological changes to the statistics, our beloved economists, are missing-in-action. Economists, believing they are quasi-physicists of the economics realm, should be ashamed at their apparent near total public acquiescence to government statistical methods and methodological changes.

Sadly, the financial media is just as irresponsible too, parroting the statistical information spoon-fed to them by government. This is a situation suited to a dictatorship rather than an enlightened democracy.

When methodological changes to government economic statistics nearly always create a picture of a more positive economic reality, we have to doubt their integrity—especially when particularly powerful political and financial elites benefit the most from them. Alas, economists and financial journalists studiously avoid publicly critiquing the changing statistical methodologies. They treat government statistics as if they come down from God and written in stone. We deserve better in this enlightened age.

So, are these dubious, positively biased economic statistics providing improved insight into economic reality–or are they created to proffer the impression of a healthy economy?

© Ron Robins 2014

Posted in Economic Measurement, Economics, Statistics, Unethical Statistics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

• The US Consumer Price Index: Let’s Have An Enlightened Approach!

Posted by Ron Robins on December 13, 2007

Update December 14, 2007

Media relentlessly publish the latest government statistics, and markets react to them, sometimes violently. Often your paycheque, government support payments and investment income are significantly influenced by them. But are they valid? Some astute economists and statisticians conclude there is obfuscation of these statistics, and subsequent misrepresentation of them in the media – who usually have neither the time nor expertise to examine them. Take the US ‘consumer price index’ or CPI. These authoritative observers note that the current US CPI incorporates numerous and continuous changes in components and weightings of components within the index, rendering it a mostly theoretical exercise based on highly questionable hypotheses.

According to John Williams (a private New Jersey consulting economist who has specialized in government statistics for several decades), the “Cost of living was being replaced by the cost of survival. The old system told you how much you had to increase your income in order to keep buying steak. The new system promised you hamburger, and then dog food, perhaps, after that.” (The old system, Mr. Williams says, existed prior to the Clinton Administration.)

On his website at http://www.shadowstats.com/cgi-bin/sgs/article/id=343, Mr. Williams states that, “Inflation, as reported by the [US] Consumer Price Index (CPI) is understated by roughly 2.7% per year… due to recent redefinitions of the series as well as to flawed methodologies, particularly adjustments to price measures for quality changes.”

Mr. Williams discusses how the government statisticians include a concept called ‘hedonics’ to adjust values in the index. He states, “Hedonics adjusts the prices of goods for the increased pleasure the consumer derives from them. That new washing machine you bought did not cost you 20% more than it would have cost you last year, because you got an offsetting 20% increase in the pleasure you derive from pushing its new electronic control buttons instead of turning that old noisy dial, according to the BLS [US Bureau of Labor Statistics].”

Williams continues, “When gasoline rises 10 cents per gallon because of a federally mandated gasoline additive, the increased gasoline cost does not contribute to inflation. Instead, the 10 cents is eliminated from the CPI because of the offsetting hedonic thrills the consumer gets from breathing cleaner air. The same principle applies to federally mandated safety features in automobiles. I have not attempted to quantify the effects of questionable quality adjustments to the CPI, but they are substantial.”

The way US housing costs are included is another oddity, keeping that component — at 32% of the CPI — low. Despite two-thirds of the US population living in their own homes, the statisticians use theorized ‘imputed’ home rents as the basis for the housing statistic! Of course rents have been virtually stagnant for years — even going down in many cities due to overbuilding — while home purchase prices, insurance and local taxes, etc., have been going through the roof!

For those Americans dependent on CPI adjustments to their welfare, social security or other government payments, they have had their payments massively depressed. Williams says that US government welfare and social security payments are now 70% lower than what they would have been had the old 1970s style CPI been used with its fixed basket of goods.

Another astute statistician, Jim Willie, elaborates further on this point. In Domino Distortions from Inflation, an article on his website at http://www.goldenjackass.com/jwarticles.html, he comments, “In my view, the [US] CPI has become little more than a measure intended to exploit the trend of falling imported finished product prices, in order to keep cost of living raises down in US Government pensions of various types…The CPI is kept low by ignoring numerous rising prices, such as property taxes, town usage fees (water, sewer, sanitation), professional services (doctor, dental, lawyer), home services (carpentry, plumbing, electrical, roofing), college tuition, restaurant meals, sports club fees, and more.”

The US CPI affects not only Americans, but consumers and investors everywhere. US domestic and global interest rates, bond yields, and returns from many other investments — all are significantly influenced by it.

It is worth remembering that the BLS is headed by a political appointee, who just may have certain biases towards statistical methodologies that most please the government — as well as to what gets out to the media.

Reviewing the December 2007 charts on Mr. Williams’ website, we can easily see the startling differences in outcomes with the varying CPI methodologies used over the past thirty years. Using the CPI methodology as it was in 1980 shows inflation today rising +12% year-over-year; employing the CPI methodology as of 1990 shows inflation higher now by +7.5%. However, today’s BLS press release has their CPI-U (urban dwellers) gaining just +4.3% over the past year!

Is the current US government reported CPI presented to play down inflation, to artificially reduce interest rates, social secuurity payments, and government payouts dependent on CPI indexing? I believe so. And it is simply unethical. As the public begins to see through these deceptions, an enlightened economics can begin to truly flourish!


© Ron Robins, 2007.

Posted in Statistics, Unethical Statistics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

• Unethical US Job Numbers?

Posted by Ron Robins on December 6, 2007

The business world waits with trepidation, the first Friday of each month, the release of the US unemployment/employment numbers. Stock, bond, currency and commodity markets often swing wildly with their release. The media focus on the numbers presented, and discuss their relevance to economic activity. But where is the analysis, the critique, of how these numbers are generated — or of their actual reliability?

Do all economists really believe that the US government’s unemployment data (and other statistics too) are beyond reproach? Are the big banks’ economists too afraid to dig into the numbers for fear of offending or confusing employers and clients? Where is the role of honesty, of ethical responsibility, to the publics these institutions serve?

Fortunately, discussion concerning the ethics and reliability of economic statistics does occasionally appear.

For instance, last year Philipp Bagus asserted in an article, The Problem of Accuracy of Economic Data, August 17, 2006, (http://www.mises.org/story/2280) “[That] we … face the question of why the problem of accuracy of economic data is rarely mentioned or passed over in silence in economics, while in the physical sciences this problem is widely acknowledged.” Further, “In contrast to physics, there is still no estimate of statistical error within economics. The various sources of error that come into play in the social sciences suggest that the error in economic observations is substantial… Economic statistics cannot be accepted at face value.”

In my research on US unemployment data, I have discovered some disquieting information. First of all, they concern the elimination of ‘discouraged workers,’ who used to be in the figures.

Discouraged workers are those who have been looking for employment for more than a year and have given-up looking for a job. They used to be included in the main unemployment numbers, but are now, conveniently left out! John Williams, statistician and economist, believes that when ‘discouraged’ workers and other ‘distorting factors’ are accounted for, then the true unemployment rate, measured in much the same way as it had been historically, would be closer to 12%! (See Welling@Weedon, February 21, 2006, Shadowing Reality interview with John Williams). At the time of Mr. Williams citing this, the US February 2006 unemployment rate was 4.7%, which is the same as for November 2007.

The second major concern is the inclusion in the non-seasonalized data — which influences the media headlined seasonally adjusted numbers — of escalating theoretically derived employment numbers from the business ‘Birth-Death Model.’ This model created by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), tracks the purported, yet hypothetical, net employment changes caused by business births and deaths.

Notice how the job gains in the Birth-Death Model have grown from less than half in 2004 to almost equalling the total employment gains in 2007? It begs the question as to how much of 2007’s employment gains are theoretically derived from the Birth-Death Model, and how much are real? The BLS appears silent on this point. With regard to the Birth-Death Model, the BLS states, “[The] BLS will continue researching alternative model-based techniques for the net birth/death component; it is likely to remain as the most problematic part of the estimation process.” Yes, it is certainly problematic.

The lack of analysis of jobs and other US economic data by mainstream economists and media is abysmal. Let economists and business journalists especially, take a lead in an illuminating debate around the make-up and ethics of such economic statistics. So far these individuals have really let down the publics they serve in this regard.


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