Retailers cry foul as economists question official data

Renewed doubts about the quality of official data surfaced yesterday as the Government postponed publication of figures on the housing market, and the latest data on retail sales met with incredulity from the industry and some economists.

A spokesman for HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), responsible for the property market data, explained that statisticians and economists at HMRC thought that "something didn't sit right" in the data when they compared them with previous months' results, hence the decision to withhold the information.

It comes a fortnight after publication of Ministry of Justice data on repossessions was postponed for a week "due to a temporary problem with the computer system". The Liberal Democrats' Treasury spokesman, Vince Cable, said: "It seems strange that when figures are bad, they are also often late. If we are to have any confidence in government figures, we must know that they are fully independent. Late or inaccurate statistics only go to further undermine this Government's credibility."

Separately, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that retail sales in the three months to July rose by 0.7 per cent and that "underlying growth in retail sales volumes remain positive". The ONS said that, between June and July, the volume of sales jumped by 0.8 per cent, "reflecting rises in all sectors". Such strong evidence would weaken the case for a cut in interest rates later this year, but monthly data is volatile, and the ONS series has become more so recently, with a sharp rise in May's sales data wiped out by a dramatic fall in June.

However, some cast more serious doubts on the figures. Stephen Robertson, director general of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), said: "Few retailers will recognise this positive picture. These ONS figures suggest July's total sales values were up 3.8 per cent on a year ago, well above the miserly 1.7 per cent shown by the BRC's figures ... It's hard to see what could produce the sales-growth boost ONS is reporting, or its finding that smaller retailers are outperforming larger ones. We respect the ONS's process, but this report doesn't seem to reflect the current retail reality."

The ONS maintains that the BRC's estimate "does not effectively reflect sales by small and medium businesses" and "does not include businesses in sectors which have shown relatively strong growth in recent periods. For example, the internet-only retailers of home entertainment and major food discount stores". Chains such as Aldi and Lidl have performed strongly during the downturn.

"Several data series are becoming unforecastable," said Ross Walker, an economist at RBS. "I don't think there is a great risk of a major policy error but it probably does mean that it increases the chances of an error. The bigger risk is it delays policy from becoming pre-emptive."

Decisions on interest rates, unusually finely balanced now, crucially depend on economic data. In a speech last month, the deputy governor of the Bank of England, Charlie Bean, pointed out the difficulties the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) has in interpreting them when setting rates. Mr Bean said: "We don't even have a precise picture of the current state of the economy. As a result, controlling the economy has been likened to driving along a winding road looking only in the rear-view mirror. Indeed it's worse than that as we don't even have that good a view of where it has been in the past either. It is as if the rear window is also a bit misted up."

Mr Bean added that, while official numbers remained the "primary signposts", the MPC would also refer to the BRC, CBI Distributive Trades and Bank of England Regional Agents' survey evidence too. "The conformity of the picture given by the Distributive Trades survey with other potential indicators of spending, such as consumer confidence and the Agents' reports, have led us to place less weight on the official data on retail spending for the present," he said.

The ONS relocated from London to Newport in south Wales this year, leading to a large number of staff changes. The PCS union warned then that the move would "undermine the quality of the statistics".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Software Development Manager

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: Product Manager - (Product Marketing, Financial Services)

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - Marke...

Recruitment Genius: Compliance Assistant

£13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Pension Specialist was established ...

Ashdown Group: Market Research Executive

£23000 - £26000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Market Research Executive...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee