This Startup Uses Night Lights to Forecast GDP

  • Japan’s Nowcast will compile data in real time for investors
  • Aims to start selling information to clients early next year

A satellite image of night-time lights in Asia.

Source: NOAA's National Geophysical Data Center

Nowcast Inc., a Japanese financial research and technology startup, has developed a product that estimates economic growth in real time by using satellite images of night-time lights.

Based on algorithms that examine changes in the intensity of illumination, as well as a range of published statistics including industrial production and trade, the Tokyo-based company can accurately forecast changes in gross domestic product, Chief Executive Officer Ryota Hayashi said in an interview.

Nowcast, which already provides real-time inflation data, is aiming to start publishing forecasts for economies including Japan, the U.S., China, India and Taiwan when the product is released as soon as February, according to Hayashi. The financial-technology firm is seeking to sell the service to investors who rely on official GDP figures that are released weeks after the end of each quarter.

“Using three-month-old factors in your models is far from ideal,” said Hayashi, 31. “Investors really have strong needs for this kind of product. It’s important to get the information quickly.”

Testing in Japan has shown the product to be more accurate than economist surveys compiled six weeks before growth statistics are released, according to Hayashi.

Satellite Data

While other startups have begun using satellites to examine information ranging from traffic movements to crop yields, Hayashi said Nowcast is the first to market a product that forecasts GDP using night lights. Such information can be a useful proxy for economic activity, particularly where traditional data is poor or unavailable, Brown University economist J. Vernon Henderson and others concluded in a 2012 study.

“This is a really interesting concept,” said Kenta Tadaide, a senior economist at Mizuho Research Institute Ltd. “There are probably some areas, particularly in the service sector, that it may not be able to pick up, but even if it can tell us things like factory utilization more quickly than other data then it’s going to be useful.”

Read more: How satellites are helping to change our economic understanding

Japan’s government releases GDP statistics about six weeks after the end of each quarter, and revises the figures a month later. Nowcast’s system will give its subscribers access to regularly updated forecasts even before the quarter has ended. As of Dec. 8, its estimate for the current quarter was for Japan’s economy to grow 0.27 percent from the previous three months.

Hedge Funds

Hayashi said he plans to sell the service to around 100 customers by the end of 2017 -- mainly institutional investors such as pension and hedge funds that use the data in their asset-allocation models. A beta version estimating Japanese and U.S. economic output is now being used by five customers that subscribe to Nowcast’s existing forecasts of consumer prices, Hayashi said.

To compile the data, Nowcast uses satellite information provided by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, having signed an agreement in November giving it exclusive access in Japan.

Internal testing of the system’s accuracy shows an average deviance of 0.36 percentage point two weeks before the release of Japan’s official statistics and 0.39 percentage point six weeks ahead, Hayashi said. That’s in line with an average 0.33 percentage-point deviation in surveys conducted by the Japan Center for Economic Research two weeks before the official release, and beats its deviance of 0.48 percentage point at six weeks.

Nowcast, which formed last year out of the University of Tokyo, began releasing real-time estimates for consumer prices in January, using data including sale transactions at retail stores. Hayashi became CEO when Finatext Ltd., a financial app-maker that he founded, bought Nowcast earlier this year.

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