Juiced Data

Tuesday, August 02, 2005 | 11:56 AM

We have been watching, with no small degree of skepticism, a stream of improving Macro-economic data. Color us unconvinced. Many of the key releases have been fraught with misleading headlines obscuring much weaker data beneath, and last month was no different. From Inflation to Federal Deficit to Unemployment Rates to Industrial Output to recent GDP (and its revisions), nearly every data point comes with an asterisk.

When we look back at this period of economic home runs, we will call it the season of steroids. Like Major Leaguers, the Data is on the Juice.

Take the Leading Economic Indicators (and revisions) from the Conference Board. The changes to the LEI now register a flattening yield curve as a positive for future economic activity. Only in the alternative universe where the Conference Board lives is this considered a positive. The CB now requires the yield curve to actually invert before it bodes negatively for future economic growth.

The Board was apparently not pleased that 8 of the 10 past LEIs were negative. Hey, if you don’t like what the indicators are suggesting, than why not just change the model? And that’s exactly happened. Taking a page from the BLS handbook (Birth Death adjustment, anyone?), the Conference Board reduced the utility of LEIs for investors. Their work now falls into the category of economic cheerleading.

Kindly return your PomPoms to the gymnasium at the end of the semester.

Don’t care much for that private group? Then consider what BLS BEA hath wrought. Their GDP revisions for 2005 Q1 border on the absurd. In order to crank GDP from its disappointing initial reading of 3.1% to the more vigorous final 3.8%, the BLS BEA had to make some sketchy adjustments. Primary amongst their changes was (I am not making this up!) an actual decrease in Home Prices for Q1. Thus, by somehow emphasizing unit sales (as opposed to price appreciation), courtesy of the Price Deflator, GDP became higher in the final read.

Torture the data long enough, and it will confess to whatever you want it to.

Despite this gamesmanship - or perhaps because of it - much of the investing public knows only half the story when they read the economic headlines. The challenge to us is to not only attempt to discern reality, but to anticipate when the great masses do so also. Its what has caused us to title research in the past with phrases such as “Fundamentals Stink: Buy Stocks.”

When the charade finally ends - probably after the last of the Bears capitulates - the finale will be ugly.

>

UPDATE:  August 2, 2005 9:43pm

A few quick points: When GDP is calculated, one of the components is Structures (Residential). That's the line where the new home construction supposedly dropped in price. The data comes from Census (part of BEA). Here is the relevant line from the Technical Note, under "Sources of Revisions":

.  Investment in residential structures was revised up, mainly on the basis of a downward revision to the Census price index for single-family houses. (Emphasis mine).

If prices went down, unit production went up. So not only do we have more output (units built), but since prices theoretically declined, the price deflator does its thing. Voila! GDP revised from 3.1% to 3.8%!  (Hey kids, its magic)

Note also that part of GDP measures new -- but not existing -- home sales. The transaction of shifting title from one party to another isn't considered production (nothing gets made), while building a new residential structure is. 

Lastly, a Brain Freeze™ caused me to type BLS instead of BEA. Those responsible for this error have been sacked.


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Tuesday, August 02, 2005 | 11:56 AM | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack (7)
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» Leading economic indicators: Is the data on steroids? from E Pluribus Unum
From Cunning Realist:Barry Ritholtz is a financial professional who has a reputation as a no-BS straight shooter, which is rare on Wall Street these days. He has a good record of calling major market turns, and his writing is accessible... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 3, 2005 5:00:48 PM

» Leading economic indicators: Is the data on steroids? from E Pluribus Unum
From Cunning Realist:Barry Ritholtz is a financial professional who has a reputation as a no-BS straight shooter, which is rare on Wall Street these days. He has a good record of calling major market turns, and his writing is accessible... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 3, 2005 5:03:35 PM

» Leading economic indicators: Is the data on steroids? from E Pluribus Unum
From Cunning Realist:Barry Ritholtz is a financial professional who has a reputation as a no-BS straight shooter, which is rare on Wall Street these days. He has a good record of calling major market turns, and his writing is accessible... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 3, 2005 5:04:11 PM

» When should we worry about the yield curve? from Econbrowser
The slope of the yield curve is likely to become an increasingly bearish indicator as this year progresses, and recent changes in the calculation of the index of leading economic indicators should not be interpreted as in any way denying that fact. [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 4, 2005 11:47:40 PM

» U.S. payrolls recorded strong gains in July from E Pluribus Unum
Finally! Hiring data were better than economists' forecasts:Employers expanded their payrolls by 207,000 in July, the most in five months, while unemployment rate held steady at 5 percent, the government reported Friday... Analysts had predicted a gain... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 5, 2005 10:13:41 AM

» U.S. payrolls recorded strong gains in July from E Pluribus Unum
Finally! Hiring data were better than economists' forecasts:Employers expanded their payrolls by 207,000 in July, the most in five months, while unemployment rate held steady at 5 percent, the government reported Friday... Analysts had predicted a gain... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 5, 2005 10:14:19 AM

» (Mis) leading indicators? from New Economist
This is a belated post, inspired by a 17 August blog by Mark Thoma on The Use of Leading Economic Indicators in Economic Forecasting. Mark cites a paper by Stock and Watson and a Bloomberg column by Caroline Baum, which asked why economic forecasters ... [Read More]

Tracked on Sep 8, 2005 2:03:49 PM

Comments

Thinking about the textbook theory of why financial fraud occurs gives us an easy rationale for this statistical monkeying:

"the purpose of financial reporting is to obtain cheap capital ... If [this can be best achieved with] statements that measure financial condition inaccurately, [the logic of shareholder value] obliges management to publish that sort, rather than the type held up as a model in accounting textbooks."

Ie, if the choice is between taking a hit for telling the truth, and getting a reward for making it up, the latter is the path to go. Obviously, this approach heavily discounts future value, and fails the naieve "truth wins in the long term" test, because the kind of companies for whom fraud is a good option are choosing between bankruptcy now and bankruptcy later, when fraud is discovered.

In the government's case, it is to prove to the world that the US has a strong economy, so they will continue to lend to us at low interest rates.

To this, I say:

"The government has a setup that Bernie Ebbers will probably spend the rest of his life dreaming enviously about from prison: I get to report the numbers I think are meaningful, and I get to determine how the numbers I report are calculated."

http://ddo.typepad.com/ddo/2005/07/why_worldcom_an.html

Posted by: Ed | Aug 2, 2005 1:51:50 PM

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