If we survive this economic crisis (and it is looking increasingly like we will, although the end of JobKeeper at the end of the month will be a setback) it will in large measure be because this time we’ve had real-time updates on what’s been going on.
Last time, we were flying blind.
In what must have been one of the worst-timed decisions of an incoming government ever, in 2008 the newly-installed Rudd government slashed the budget of the Australian Bureau of Statistics ahead of the global financial crisis.
In its first budget it hacked A$28 million off ABS budget, and told it to work out what to cut.
Rudd and his staff had to navigate partially blindfolded.
It was, as the then head of the treasury’s macroeconomic group David Gruen said at the time, as if the Titanic was sailing into iceberg-infested waters while those with the requisite skills were hard at work “in a windowless cabin”.
By the end of February he had “this feeling I last had in the middle of 2008”.
Not much coronavirus had spread to Australia by that point, but as Gruen recounted to the Canberra branch of the Economic Society, it felt like “something big was coming”.
Something big was coming
Gruen called a brainstorming session and asked senior staff what data they could produce quickly — far more quickly than usual — that would tell people what was happening in near real-time.
The business conditions unit said it could run a survey of 1,200 businesses, but that it would cost money — $20,000. Gruen told them to spend it. The survey began on March 16, ran for three days and was published on March 26, a record-quick ten days after the first questions were asked.
That first survey asked how COVID was hurting each business, what it expected. Then requests started coming in for further questions about cash on hand, revenue and employees. Month by month the survey evolved as the crisis evolved.
Then the household survey unit realised it could do one. It repurposed a panel it had assembled for a different survey and went back to the same households month after month for real-time insights into things such as the changing precautions they were taking, their comfort with social gatherings, their use of stimulus payments and the state of their finances.
Spending in shops was convulsing, literally down 17.7% one month (on lockdowns), then up 17% the next (on panic buying).
Yet the retail figures had always been presented with a delay — four to five weeks after the month to which they referred — while the bureau waited for all of the retailers it was surveying to report, making the insights anything but current.
Information about deaths (rather useful in a health crisis) was even worse.
Not information about COVID deaths, which heath authorities were totting up daily, but deaths from all causes, which the bureau traditionally released once a year once all the reports from coroners had come in, every September, almost an entire year after the year to which the deaths took place. Some of the deaths were the best part of two years old.
Preliminary now, final later
Gruen suggested that rather than wait until every coroner’s report was finalised, the bureau release “provisional mortality statistics” based on only doctor-certified deaths (80-85% of all deaths) monthly.
The excess deaths in other countries might have been either COVID deaths not classified as COVID deaths, or deaths inadvertently caused by measures designed to fight COVID.
In net terms Australia has had neither. The bureau’s figures show we’ve been less likely than normal to die of heart disease and strokes, and far less likely to die from flu, probably because social distancing has made it harder to catch.
- ^ setback (drive.google.com)
- ^ May (www.abs.gov.au)
- ^ Lehman Brothers (www.investopedia.com)
- ^ 41,100 (www.abs.gov.au)
- ^ David Gruen (treasury.gov.au)
- ^ head of the ABS (www.abs.gov.au)
- ^ coronavirus (www.wsj.com)
- ^ survey (www.abs.gov.au)
- ^ Australia's first service-sector recession unlike those that went before it (theconversation.com)
- ^ real-time insights (www.abs.gov.au)
- ^ preliminary (www.abs.gov.au)
- ^ totting up daily (www.health.gov.au)
- ^ provisional mortality statistics (www.abs.gov.au)
- ^ much of the world (www.economist.com)
- ^ Up to 204,691 extra deaths in the US so far in this pandemic year (theconversation.com)
- ^ ABS Provisional Mortality Statistics (www.abs.gov.au)
- ^ payroll data (www.abs.gov.au)
- ^ single-touch payroll (www.ato.gov.au)
- ^ and change (www.ato.gov.au)
- ^ business activity statements (www.ato.gov.au)
- ^ smart meter (www.abs.gov.au)
- ^ mobile devices (www.abs.gov.au)
- ^ GDP is V-shaped, but not yet good. These three graphs tell the story (theconversation.com)
- ^ hundred of thousands (drive.google.com)
Authors: Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University