HONG KONG — As economic vital signs, gross domestic product and other data are expected to be both accurate and released on a reliable schedule. But how they are handled can also open a window into a country’s political culture — just take China.
Computer screens in empty offices flashed Sept. 9 with the news that Chinese wholesale prices rose 6.3% on the year in August, greatly outperforming market expectations. But the alert came with no updates on the exchange rate or stock prices because it was Saturday and markets were closed.
It is not uncommon for the National Bureau of Statistics to release such data over the weekend. It announced July profits of major industrial enterprises Aug. 27. More than a tenth of major monthly and quarterly data this year is coming out on weekends, according to the bureau.
This would be virtually unthinkable in many other countries. The U.S. and Europe place significant cultural value on weekend time off.
Logistical factors can play a role as well. “There are certain indicators in Japan, like the consumer price index, that need to be approved by the cabinet before they can go out,” said Akiyoshi Takumori of Sumitomo Mitsui Asset Management. The cabinet usually meets Tuesdays and Fridays.
Not only mature economies stick to weekdays. Toru Nishihama of the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute said that of the 20-plus emerging economies he mainly deals with, “none but China” release economic data on Saturdays or Sundays.
But why? It seems strange to announce things on days when few can make use of the information — not to mention that government employees end up working weekends.
“As a general rule, we announce monthly figures on the same date every month, regardless of when it falls in the week,” a statistics bureau representative said. “Isn’t it more convenient if people know exactly when they are coming out?”
At the root of the phenomenon lies a unique cultural attitude toward work and holidays. Those in charge of statistics at major Chinese agencies pride themselves on their work, said Okasan Securities’ Yoshimi Goto, a former Bank of Japan official who has worked on loan at the People’s Bank of China. They consider it their duty to release accurate data as soon as possible and do not believe in waiting until Monday. They also seek to demonstrate their work ethic to their bosses and Communist Party leaders.
China sometimes publishes economic data at odd times, too. Trade statistics often come out before noon, but the March edition was not released until almost 3 p.m. — an inconvenient time for many investors.
National Bureau of Statistics spokesman Mao Shengyong addresses reporters Aug. 14. © AP
“Chinese bureaucrats have party responsibilities that take precedence over administrative duties,” said Goto, who speculated that “perhaps the person in charge of greenlighting the release was busy attending a Communist Party meeting.”
Websites of Chinese economic bodies can be revealing as well. They frequently feature photos of their chiefs giving speeches or meeting with important people.
The sites essentially both inform the public about the party’s policies and enable bureaucrats to show higher-ups that they are doing a good job. Rather than serve as a resource for the public and market players, the websites take on a distinctly political tone.
“Data compiled by the national government is top-notch,” Goto said, in contrast to certain regional governments that have allegedly overstated economic figures. But the central government has still been accused of taking an arbitrary and authoritarian stance on inconvenient information, reportedly blocking the publication of private-sector-compiled data clashing with the official narrative.
If China wants to get serious about opening up its market to the world, it needs to start releasing its data in a way that better serves the public.