Thursday, October 13, 2016

Driving without lights: ABS prepares to cut critical surveys

A decade ago in the lead-up to the global financial crisis, the Bureau of Statistics dimmed the lights. It suspended its job vacancies survey and slashed its employment survey by a quarter.

When the crisis hit, the new treasurer, Wayne Swan, was in the dark. Without the job vacancies data, he didn't have a check on employment data that had itself become erratic and unreliable at the local level. He and the Reserve Bank had little idea how things were panning out across the country.

The Bureau eventually got extra funds and restored the surveys (after the worst of the crisis had passed), but more recently it has been cut and cut again.

Labor cut $10 million on the way out in 2013 and the Coalition cut $68 million on the way in in 2014. So hard up was it before it got a reprieve in the lead-up to this year's census that it asked the government for permission to abandon it so it could use the funds to fix its antiquated computer systems. In 10 years its workforce has shrunk by one sixth.

On Thursday, its chief David Kalisch revealed it did "not have the resources to undertake all the activities that fall within our legislative mandate that our users would like".

This time it is leaving the job vacancies survey alone. Instead it's going after the monthly retail sales survey as well as those on housing and lending finance, and a number on international trade. It says it will consult with users about making them less frequent, which will make them less useful.

The Reserve Bank in particular relies on the monthly housing finance survey to give it a handle on what happens as soon as it moves interest rates. It's what CommSec chief economist Craig James calls "forward looking" data. Applications for home loans provide a good guide as to what's about to happen to home building.

HSBC economist Paul Bloxham says retail sales and borrowing figures are important for more than just the Bank. Individual companies and retailers themselves are economic managers. They need to know what's going on.

Deloitte Access Economics director Chris Richardson says we'll be able to live with the cuts "until we can't".

"Until the next financial crisis or whatever it is rolls through town and we're desperately trying to get a pulse, or indeed find one, that's when we'll know what's missing," he says.

Many more surveys are up for axing altogether, unless user funding is secured, among them those on internet use, the experience of patients in hospitals, victims of crime, and the foreign ownership of agricultural businesses.

Labor's Andrew Leigh quipped that given the government's success with the national broadband network, it probably didn't want surveys about internet speeds, and given its war on Medicare it probably don't want surveys about patient experience.

The cuts came on top of "what had to be a contender for the worst managed census anywhere in the world in 2300 years".

It might be a cynical bid for more funds, as some say the earlier cuts were. If so, we should consider handing them over. We need the surveys.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald