Economic sources available online

In: Uncategorized

23 Apr 2012

This is my Perspective column for this week’s issue of Fund Strategy.

The publication of a huge volume of official reports and data always makes April an exciting time of year for us economic geeks. But anyone with even a passing interest in economics and finance can glean insights from this huge range of freely available information.

Although investment intermediaries have access to material from fund groups this has its drawbacks. For a start, few private institutions can have access to the huge amount of resources available to international organisations. The International Monetary Fund ( ), for example, employs 2,400 people from 187 countries. Many of them are economics and data professionals. The World Bank is even bigger still with over 10,000 employees from around the world. Both organisations publish throughout the year but there is always a rush in the run-up to their main meetings in April and October.

Information from fund management houses is also of variable quality. There are some astute commentators but many others are superficial. Fund groups are also generally wary of publishing reports that might conflict with their commercial interests. For instance, if they were promoting a fund investing in a particular market it would be a brave group that published a report critical of that country.

This is not to say that the reports from international organisations are perfect. A big drawback is that criticisms of economic problems are often muted. Evidently the internal versions of some reports are much more hard-hitting than those published for general consumption.

Nevertheless there is a mass of free and valuable information available to the public at the click of a mouse. Much of it is also fairly accessible. Often data can also be easily downloaded on to Excel spreadsheets for analysis or use in presentations. Here is a guide to some of the most useful sites.

The IMF has a huge library of reports and data available to the public. Perhaps the most important is the World Economic Outlook – commonly known as the “Weo” – published in April and October every year. In broad terms the Weo is divided into two parts. Every issue includes a comprehensive review of developments in the global economy along with economic forecasts.

There are also analytical chapters that examine different themes in every issue. For instance, the new report has a chapter dealing with household debt and another focusing on commodity prices (those investing in natural resources take note). The IMF also publishes shorter Weo updates every six months to revise its forecast and provide more up-to-date data.

Information from these reports is regularly integrated into a Weo Database that is available to access online. This is perhaps the most valuable resource of all. It enables users to download data on many indicators for all the IMF member states over a long period. For instance, it would be a simple matter to plot, say, the value of French oil imports or the rate of Brazilian inflation from 1980s to the most recently available estimates. It is also possible to generate forecasts for several years into the future although, as with all predictions, these should be handled with care.

Nor does this exhaust the valuable reports available from the IMF. Its twice-yearly Global Financial Stability Report is likely to be useful to anyone who follows the financial sector.

The Fiscal Monitor should to be of use to those following government finances and fixed interest markets. There are also Regional Economic Outlooks for those interested in particular parts of the world.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development ( ) is stingier with its reports than the IMF and its membership is restricted to richer countries. Nevertheless there is a large amount of free information and data on its site.

For instance, it provides regular detailed reports on its member states, and some large non-member states, with fairly detailed summaries freely available. It also produces a detailed global Economic Outlook every six months and a mass of thematic reports on such topics as economic growth. There is also a mass of statistical data on subjects ranging from agriculture to youth unemployment.

For those interested in international trade the World Trade Organization ( ) has plenty on its site. These include international trade statistics providing a detailed analysis on such topics as the leading traders, trade by sector and product, and regional trade. Trade data can also point to broader trends in the global economy. So according to the latest WTO release the rate of increase of world trade fell from 13.8% in 2010 to 5.0% in 2011 with only 3.7% expected this year. This fall would seem to confirm other indicators suggesting that global economic growth is slowing.

The most striking statistics of all for those who follow emerging economies come from the World Bank ( ). Like the IMF it provides a mass of freely available reports and data on its global membership. Although it has information on developed countries the focus is on developing countries. It has a library of 80,000 free, downloadable documents on its website with records from 1946 to the present.

Highlights include its annual World Development Report and the World Development Indicators database with a huge range of data on 216 economies from 1960 onwards. A few years ago, outside of large organisations and university libraries, it was only possible to dream of access to such data.

Web technology enables individuals to rapidly search through this mass of information to find what is valuable to them. Even an individual working on his own has instant access to what is in effect a massive library.

The next surge in the publication of official reports will be in October. Speaking for the geeks I cannot wait.