A federal government shutdown would cut off access to key data on unemployment, inflation and spending just as policymakers are trying to guide the economy to a “soft landing” and avoid a recession.
Federal statistical agencies, including the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis, will suspend operations unless Congress reaches a deal before Sunday to fund the government. Even a short shutdown would probably delay high-profile data releases — including the monthly jobs report, scheduled for Oct. 6, and the Consumer Price Index, scheduled for Oct. 12.
This isn’t the first time government shutdowns have threatened economic data. The 16-day lapse in funding in 2013 delayed dozens of releases, including the September employment report. A longer but less extensive shutdown in 2018 and 2019 spared the Bureau of Labor Statistics but held up reports from the Commerce Department, including data on gross domestic product.
But this shutdown, if it occurs, comes at a particularly sensitive time for the economy. Policymakers at the Federal Reserve have been trying to tame inflation without causing a recession — a balancing act that requires central bankers to fine tune their strategy based on how the economy responds.
“Monetary policy, even in normal times, is a complicated undertaking — we are not in a normal time now,” said David Wilcox, a longtime Fed staff member who is now an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and Bloomberg Economics. “It’s not a good strategy to take a task that is so difficult and make it harder by restricting the information flow to monetary policymakers at this delicate moment.”
A short shutdown, similar to the one a decade ago, would delay data releases but probably wouldn’t do much longer-term damage. Data for the September jobs report, for example, has already been collected; it would take government statisticians only a few days to finish the report and release it after the government reopened. In that situation, most major statistics would probably be updated by the time the Fed next meets on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.
But the longer a shutdown goes on, the more lasting the potential damage. Labor force statistics, for example, are based on a survey conducted in the middle of each month — if the government doesn’t reopen in time to conduct the October survey on schedule, the resulting data could be less accurate, as respondents struggle to recall what they were doing weeks earlier. Other data, such as information on consumer prices, could be all but impossible to recover after the fact.
“If we miss two months of collecting data, we’re never getting that back,” said Betsey Stevenson, a University of Michigan economist who was a member of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers during the 2013 shutdown. “This thing gets more and more and more problematic as the duration goes on.”
A longer shutdown would also increase the risk that policymakers misread the economy and make a mistake — perhaps by failing to detect a reacceleration in inflation, or by missing signs that the economy is slipping into a recession.
“The thought of the Fed trying to make such an important, critical decision without big pieces of information is just downright terrifying,” said Ben Harris, who was a top official at the Treasury Department until early this year and is now at the Brookings Institution. “It’s like a pilot trying to land a plane without knowing what the runway looks like.”
Policymakers wouldn’t be flying completely blind. The Fed, which operates independently and would not be affected by the shutdown, would continue to publish its own data on industrial production, consumer credit and other subjects. And private-sector data providers have expanded significantly in both breadth and quality in recent years, offering alternative sources of information on job openings, employment, wages and consumer spending.
“The Fed has always done what it can to gather information from other sources, but now there are more of those sources it can turn to,” said Erica Groshen, a Cornell University economist who served as commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics during the 2013 shutdown. “That will make the very data-dependent parts of the policy world and the business community a little less bereft of timely data.”
Still, Ms. Groshen said, private data cannot match the breadth, transparency and reliability of official statistics. She recalled that in 2013, Fed officials contacted her department to see if the central bank could provide funding to get the jobs report out on time — a proposal that administration officials ultimately concluded would be illegal.
Policymakers aren’t the only ones who will be affected by the lack of data. Trucking companies base fuel surcharges on diesel prices published by the Energy Information Administration. Inventory and sales data from the Census Bureau can influence businesses’ decisions on when to place orders. And the Social Security Administration can’t settle on the annual cost-of-living increase in benefits without October consumer price data.