Reading economic data releases from the government

 
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Writing about the economy has to involve numbers, but it doesn’t have to be deadly dull. While the numbers are the story, a good economic journalist uses real-life examples to make those numbers come alive. Find people that are experiencing the trend that the numbers are showing, and you will do your readers a service.

The federal government compiles a massive amount of data about national, regional and state economies that can be useful to economics journalists. The trick in reading what can be 32-page news releases is determining which numbers are important which ones can be ignored.

Unemployment

Unemployment figures are released on the first Friday of the month for the previous month by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are two primary numbers in the release — the unemployment rate and the nonfarm payroll employment data.

What to write about:

  1. Has the unemployment rate for the country risen or fallen dramatically from the past month? A change of more than a tenth of a percentage point can be a big change.
  2. What is the change in payroll employment? The unemployment rate can fall, but that doesn’t mean more people are working.
  3. Are there any changes in employment by race, age or sex? This data is often overlooked but can show important trends.

Employment is typically the single most important data release from the government because it’s released right after the end of the month and gives a good barometer of the broad economy.

Interest rates

The Federal Open Market Committee of the Federal Reserve Board determines the federal funds rate — the interest rate that banks lend money to banks overnight — that trickles down to what consumers pay in interest when they borrow money. The committee meets eight times a year, in Washington, D.C., and releases its decisions by news release at about 2:15 p.m. EST on the day of the meeting.

What to write about:

  1. Change in federal funds rate. An increase in the rate means that the committee wants to slow the economic growth by making it harder to borrow money. A decrease in the rate means that the committee wants to stimulate economic growth.
  2. What does the committee think about the current economic situation? There are usually a few paragraphs explaining what the committee believes are current economic conditions.
  3. The vote. The release will state who voted to change the rate, and who opposed. Rarely do you see dissention. When you do, that signals a disagreement about what the members believe about current economic conditions.

Consumer price index

The consumer price index measures inflation as experienced by consumers in their day-to-day living. The data comes out monthly from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and is issued three weeks after the end of the month.

What to write about:

  1. The change in the CPI for all urban consumers. If it’s going up, that means consumers are paying more for their goods and services.
  2. What’s driving the change? The percentage change is based on a basket of goods. Look to see what goods are going up in price, or down in price. Recently, food and gasoline prices have been rising, causing the CPI number to go up.
  3. Housing costs. Housing expenses are 41% of the average person’s budget, the biggest slice of the index. So look at this number.
  4. Specific goods. If you’re only interested in specific products, such as clothing, medical care or education, this release can be a treasure trove of data.

Note that there’s data for urban workers and data for wage and clerical workers. The urban workers data covers about 87% of the population, so focus on that number. Having said that, there rarely is a big difference between the inflation numbers of urban workers vs. wage and clerical workers.

Consumer confidence

Consumer confidence assesses whether people are more likely to spend money in the future on goods and services. If confidence falls, then those purchases may be delayed. This is not federal government data, but comes from the Conference Board. (Similar data is also compiled by the University of Michigan.)

The Conference Board data comes out on the last Tuesday of the month and is based on data from the first 17 days of the month.

What to write about:

  1. A change in the overall index. An increase means that consumers are more likely to spend in the future. A decrease means that consumers are closing their wallets.
  2. What is happening with the expectations index? That looks at consumer feelings six months into the future.
  3. What do consumers think about the job market? One of the questions in the index is about employment, and the Conference Board typically breaks out that data.

New home sales

New home sales data is compiled by the Census Bureau on a monthly basis and reports on new, single-family homes. It also includes other data. The data is released on the last week of the following month. These numbers are volatile and subject to revisions.

What to write about:

  1. The focus in any new home sales story is on the level of sales and the monthly change in total sales.
  2. Major changes in the median price of a new home.
  3. Major changes in sales in a geographic region of the country.
  4. An increase or decrease in the inventory of new homes.

New home sales are more important to the economy than existing home sales, even through they’re only about one-sixth of total sales, because they reflect new investment in the economy.

Many states have economic data for their regions as well. Check with the state agencies in your area.

Too many economics stories quote economists and not real people. While economists can provide the perspective in explaining what the numbers mean, real people bring the numbers to life for readers.

Chris Roush is the Walter E. Hussman Sr. Distinguished Scholar in business journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill. He can be reached at croush@email.unc.edu.

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    Writer: | Last updated: March 16, 2011

     

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