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How's the economy doing? Shutdown makes it hard to tell

Posted at 3:42 PM, Jan 16, 2019

The record-breaking government shutdown is putting some key economic reports on ice, creating more uncertainty for businesses, investors and farmers.

The shutdown, now in its fourth week, has delayed the release of several reports ranging from new home sales to soybean purchases. Much of the data is normally published by the Commerce Department, but other agencies like the Treasury and the Department of Agriculture are also shutdown, or operating with razor-thin staffs.

On Wednesday, retailers didn't get a report on December sales, because the Commerce Department remains unfunded. It leaves them in the dark on how Americans spent their money during the holiday season.

"If we don't know how consumers are spending, businesses across the board are going to be more cautious and anxious about making decisions," said Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist at the National Retail Federation.

There are some other data sets out there, he noted, but the government's survey is the gold standard. The report details the amount spent by item, including appliances, clothing, sporting goods, cars and food, for example.

Others are also operating in the dark.

Farmers would normally have looked to a report on world markets to help determine what to plant this spring, but it wasn't published by the Department of Agriculture last week.

If the shutdown lasts through January, it's unlikely the government will be able to publish its next report on GDP -- one of the broadest measures of economic activity that's closely watched by investors.

Due on January 30, the report would cover the fourth quarter of 2018. There is some concern about how the economy did during those three months because of the tightening financial markets and a turmoil in the global economy , said Ryan Sweet, head of monetary policy research at Moody's Analytics.

"Not getting Q4 GDP likely prolongs that angst and creates uncertainty," he added.

Economists don't expect to see the delayed reports published immediately after the government is back up and running. It's likely that federal employees aren't collecting the data right now either.

But business leaders aren't flying totally blind. Private reports are still available, and are being used within the government, too: Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said earlier this month his analysts will be able to keep policymakers sufficiently informed before their next rate-setting meeting, even if the shutdown persists.

Some arms of the government are still churning out numbers.

The monthly jobs report continues to be released because the Labor Department isn't affected by the shutdown. Though, it could still create a wrinkle in the data, making it appear like more Americans are looking for work. The roughly 380,000 furloughed government workers will be counted as unemployed in the January report .