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March 24, 2010

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Credibility crisis can be overcome

AS a journalist covering economic news, I was twice asked the same question last month: Do you really believe the figures you report?

I was astonished. Were my friends, both "orthodox" Chinese in their early 30s, doubting the credibility of the National Bureau of Statistics, the nation's official economic data compiler?

It seems now that they are part of a nationwide wave of skepticism triggered by a bureau report issued on February 25 that showed housing prices in China's 70 major cities rose 1.5 percent in 2009 from a year earlier.

Seriously, I had to question that figure.

Even a casual observer of the real estate market couldn't have failed to notice the red-hot property market in the latter half of 2009 and the crazy price increases that resulted.

The public may be incapable of coming up with the figures to rebut the official 1.5 percent figure, but instinct alone will tell them there is something fishy going on.

A 1.5 percent increase is less than a quarter of the average increase of the previous four years, and the lowest rise in nine years.

The National Bureau of Statistics has been under fire since the figure was released, especially during this month's annual session of the National People's Congress and the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the country's top legislative and advisory bodies.

Chen Yongzhi, a Congress member and deputy director of the standing committee of the People's Congress in Guangdong Province, said, "I never believe what the National Bureau of Statistics says. I only count on what the electricity use tells."

Indeed, the Bureau of Statistics faces a creditability crisis.

Ma Jiantang, the bureau's director, admitted on March 5 that the method and system of calculating property prices had problems.

"We will seriously reflect upon the public criticism and take effective measures to improve our work," Ma said at a seminar attended by government officials, property experts and real estate developers.

But Ma denied allegations that the figures were cooked to please the government and developers, saying that "there was no selfish motivation behind the calculation," according to Xinhua news agency.

It's hard to believe the bureau would put its credibility at risk by issuing fake data. We often hear allegations that lower-level statistics bureaus fabricate figures to gild the performance of their local governments. But does the trickery extend all the way up the line?

Those who trust the government will want to believe Ma's explanation that there are problems in the calculations.

But Ma's remarks don't go far enough. He still dances around the core of the problem: Who should bear responsibility for the faulty calculation methods? Where exactly is the problem? And what will the bureau do to rectify the problems?

The bureau needs more transparency. In its early days, the bureau's research was only for senior officials to help with policy making.

Now the statistics are disclosed publicly, extending the influence of the data across China and the world. Economic data affect stock markets, corporate decision-making, wealth management and a host of other realms. It's not unusual for key Chinese data to move markets in Asia, Europe and the United States. Everyone is watching.

The National Bureau of Statistics is in the spotlight, providing it an opportunity to mend its ways and re-establish its credentials.

In an interview with Wang Zhixiong, chief of the Shanghai Statistics Bureau, I was told about the difficulties in restructuring the methodology used to compile and calculate data.

For example, a lot of people want housing prices included in the calculation of the Consumer Price Index, a major gauge of inflation or deflation and a significant tool in monetary policy-making. Some countries do include housing as a basic cost of living; others do not.

The argument is that surging asset prices have become a major source of inflation and inflationary expectations.

Wang said the demand is understandable, but not necessarily scientific.

According to international standards, housing prices are not included in the calculation of CPI because an apartment or a house is not traded often.

"In order to make date conformable and comparable, we can't change the methods casually," Wang added. "We need time to design a practical way."

His comments may be reasonable, but the bureau may have a tough time convincing people that its definition of accuracy is so wildly different from public perception. Conformity and comparability are hard concepts for people to swallow when they can't afford to buy a home because prices are skyrocketing.

The National Bureau of Statistics is no longer the only source of economic information. Many independent institutions, industry organizations and private economists release their own figures.

Perhaps what we need is a time out from all the public complaints directed at the bureau and give it the chance to redeem itself.

A few days ago, a document on the Website of the Ministry of Commerce caught my attention. It explained in detail the discrepancies in trade figures calculated by Customs in China and its counterpart in the United States.

The statistical discrepancy reflects conceptual and methodological differences, from territory definitions, from timing of recording data and inclusion of re-exports in the collection, and from the actual processing of the trade data, the document said.

I can't list all the reasons behind the discrepancy here. They filled a 20-page document.

The document was produced by a statistical working group, founded in 1994 and endorsed by both countries, to conduct a reconciliation study to explain and quantify discrepancies in the official US-China bilateral merchandise trade statistics.

The two countries have reached a consensus based on the document that neither country is wrong in its methodology. It's just a difference of how things are defined and what is included in compilations.

I laud such a mechanism.

Having a third-party review figures may be one solution to the bureau's credibility crisis.


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