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Wall Street and businesses find their way in the dark as shutdown delays key economic data

Missing reports include those required for calculating gross domestic product, the main measure of economic output.
/ Source: Reuters

The partial government shutdown, which entered its second month on Wednesday, has delayed the publication of key economic data, leaving investors and businesses to follow their intuition and gut instincts as they make critical decisions.

Among agencies affected is the Commerce Department, leading to the suspension of the publication of data compiled by its Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Census Bureau. The Labor Department has not been affected and its Bureau of Labor Statistics continues to publish data, including the closely watched monthly employment report.

Data gathered by non-governmental organizations such as the Federal Reserve and Conference Board also continue to be published.

The first casualties were November's new-home sales, advance trade, wholesale and retail inventories reports, which were scheduled for release in the last week of December. Publication of these reports for December is also likely to be delayed.

Also postponed was November's construction report detailing the value of construction work on new structures or improvements to existing structures for private and public sectors. Trade data for November was also delayed.

November business inventory data as well as the factory orders report has been delayed. December's retail sales, housing starts and building permits data have also not been released. It is unlikely that December durable goods orders, personal income and consumer spending reports will be published.

These reports constitute the source data for calculating gross domestic product, the main measure of economic output. The advance fourth-quarter GDP report, scheduled for release on Jan. 30, will likely be delayed even if parts of the government hit by the lapse reopen this week.

Businesses including manufacturers, farmers, retailers, builders and others rely on these reports in making decisions on capital spending, production and managing inventory among other activities. Government and private economists count on them to assemble a full picture of the health of the U.S. economy, and financial market participants need them to guide asset allocation decisions.

According to Robert Shapiro, a former under secretary of commerce for economic affairs in the Clinton administration, the shutdown has put all surveys on hold. Shapiro, who oversaw the data releases, said it will take time to catch up.

"GDP is the only standard gauge we have of the pace and direction of the overall economy and its major components, and the measures that comprise it help shape long-term business and financial planning and short-term investment algorithms," said Shapiro, now a senior fellow at Georgetown McDonough School of Business in Washington.

Meanwhile, several Fed officials have voiced concerns about having to make monetary policy decisions without key information, including the bank's preferred measure of inflation. Having "good data is how we make our decisions," New York Fed President John Williams said last Friday.

The Fed is to hold its next policy meeting on Jan. 29-30.

The lapse in funding for the Census Bureau will not affect the January employment report, even though BLS uses Census data for the household survey portion of the report from which the unemployment rate is calculated.