Pig Sales Fly Blind as Data Cut by Shutdown Hampers Firms
For Brian Duncan, a 49-year-old hog farmer in Polo, Illinois, the government shutdown is converting the economic fundamentals of his business into a guessing game.
Duncan relies on U.S. Department of Agriculture commodity data to price his hogs. That information flow has been cut off with the partial shutdown of the federal government, which entered a fourth day today. The lapse has had a dramatic effect on his operation in north-central Illinois, he said.
“Everyone in the food chain relies on the government to be an unbiased source of prices,” said Duncan, who sells 50,000 pigs a year to meat packers, including Tyson Foods Inc. (TSN), Smithfield Foods Inc. and Cargill Inc. “We have no clue what the price of hogs is or the price of the pork.”
From farms to factories, businesses are getting an unwelcome lesson on how central Washington’s digital feed has become in the information age. Wall Street traders, home builders, economists and cattle ranchers are all learning to do without as the shutdown shows no sign of ending.
Over the past decade, “we’ve seen a shift toward a more data-driven approach in business decision-making, and the combination of government and private data has been very valuable,” said Erik Brynjolfsson, director for digital business at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management in Cambridge. “You lose one part of that, you lose the synergy.”
The government closure has shuttered Commerce Department websites that track economic data, including those run by the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the U.S. Census Bureau. That means businesses and consumers don’t have access to historical information including gross domestic product, new-home sales, demographics and international-trade statistics.
The agency’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website is also down. NOAA sites that provide public-safety information, like those of the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center, are still operating.
The Energy Information Administration will be able to post natural-gas prices, oil inventories and coal-production data for only a week or two more before funding runs out, said Jonathan Cogan, an agency spokesman. The U.S. International Trade Commission’s website and database of complaints and agency filings also have been shut down.
Without a shutdown, the U.S. Labor Department would be releasing its monthly employment report today, a highly anticipated event that can move markets around the globe.
Usually, that would mean fresh bagels for traders at Williams Capital Group LP, an institutional brokerage in New York.
The effects of reduced data will only increase as the disruption continues, said Joseph Minarik, research director at the Committee for Economic Development in Washington and a former chief economist of the Office of Management and Budget.
“We will begin to see difficulties if we are flying blind” for an extended period, he said. “A few seconds of lost visibility is not going to be a big problem, but more than that you have to rely on your instruments, and they better be right.”
Without government information as a guide, private reports are taking on greater importance in investment and business decisions, said Mark Vitner, a senior economist in Charlotte, North Carolina, for Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC), the biggest U.S. home lender.
For example, without the monthly employment data that would normally be issued today, Automatic Data Processing Inc.’s nongovernment payroll report, released earlier this week, gained greater prominence, he said. Still, such data are supplements rather than substitutes for the government figures, he said.
Vitner said the shutdown has made him more aware of just how often government information is used. “It surprises me how much we go to the Census website,” he said. Still, he called the lack of information a “relatively minor inconvenience” because “it’s not like we’re data-starved.”
It has been enough to get some traders up in arms -- literally. Traders, analysts and fund managers from Huntington Asset Advisors in Cincinnati moved up their fall client day to today, giving customers an update on markets and the economy over wine and cheese, coupled with a round of skeet shooting, said Peter Sorrentino, senior vice president and portfolio manager, who helps oversee about $14.7 billion.
“Most of our customers are annoyed with what’s going on, so they can have a chance to vent their frustrations,” he said.
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