Down the Data Rabbit Hole

I was planning a different article on life expectancy after reading about Prince Philip’s death at 99. I couldn’t have told you his name until I watched The Crown on Netflix and he was one of my favorite characters, especially in the first two seasons. I know it’s fiction, but I would never have read his obituary before watching the show.

Instead, though, I fell down a rabbit hole looking at a website created by Harvard, Brown and the Gates Foundation that looks at what is called high-frequency economic data.

In the old days, we all had to rely on data that the government collected and released, whether it was the Bureau of Labor Statistics and nonfarm payrolls or Bureau of Economic Statistics and gross domestic product. Sure, private firms like ADP and universities like Michigan produced some valuable data, but we mostly relied on the government.

Now, as data is increasingly prevalent, more and more people are trying to estimate what’s happening in the economy in real-time, rather than waiting for the government to release their data well after the fact. One Federal Reserve Bank does this with the Atlanta GDP Now, but more and more private services are doing the same.

Ten years ago, private data was the domain of hedge funds that famously looked at satellite imagery of store parking lots to gauge business activity, but today we all have a lot of access (and that imagery isn’t so useful now that we shop on Amazon, although I’m sure people follow their trucks with satellites too).

The Harvard site, Track the Recovery, is particularly fun because you can take a deep dive into the data. For example, if you look at consumer spending, it starts with a national look at all spending, and you can see that spending is up 5.5 percent since the start of the pandemic after a -30 percent drop at the outset.

But then, you can take a look at Missouri, for example, and see that spending is up 16 percent, also following a 30 percent drop initially. Why is it better? I don’t know – it only provides the data. But I can break the data down into low-income people (+19 percent) versus high income folks (-14.3 percent). And, I can see it by groceries (+32.7 percent) or restaurants (-5.9 percent).

My only disappointment is that I can drill down into Kansas City, but not St. Louis!

Before you ask, let me offer that we won’t explicitly use this data in our investing decisions anytime soon, if ever. I have looked at funds over the years that promise great things from their high frequency data and analytics, but nothing has looked any better than what we already do, and even if it did, the track records are all so short that they wouldn’t tell you anything.

And, it turns out that all of the big firms are mostly chasing the same data. If Harvard is willing to put this on the web for free, you can bet that the firms that collect the data have shown it to all of the big funds hoping to earn millions in fees providing ‘actionable’ data.

Still, it is interesting and does give us a better picture into what’s happening how, which is always useful.

I hope you have as much fun down the rabbit hole as I did!