Monday, 24 June 2013

Good data, for free, and easily accessible

In the previous post I quoted some long-run inflation data for New Zealand (the Consumer Price Index in the 25 years to the end of 1989).

It's worth knowing that you can easily do this for yourself, if you are interested in seeing what's happened to purchasing power over long periods of time, or if you are interested in the other major economic indicators, such as GDP or unemployment, though I suspect that how you can is one of New Zealand's better kept secrets.

The answer is Infoshare. Infoshare is Statistics New Zealand's free, online, source of official statistics, where you can get, view and download (in Excel format) a wide range of data.
Here's a very quick DIY guide.

Go to the Stats website. At the bottom right of the home screen there's a section called 'Quick links': the second one down is 'Infoshare'. Click there. You can bypass this indirect route if you like, by going straight to Infoshare here.

You have various choices here in the tabs across the top, the main ones being 'Browse' and 'Search'. By way of example, leave it on the default 'Browse', and click on the + sign beside 'Economic indicators' to expand it. Click on the + beside 'Consumers Price Index - CPI'. Click on the + beside 'CPI All Groups for New Zealand (Qrtly - Mar/Jun/Sep/Dec)'.

And now we get to the guts of it. Up comes a page with two boxes in the middle of it. This is where you choose what data you want (left hand box) and for what time period (right hand box).

In the left hand box, click on 'All groups'. The 'Selected' box just above 'All groups' will change from 0 to 1, showing that you have picked a statistic you want to get. This time round, the way we have got there, there was only one thing to select, but often you will have a range of alternatives and you can select several at a go.

In the right hand box, click on the time period you want. Selecting periods behaves exactly like selecting data in an Excel spreadsheet. If you want to select a contiguous range, select the end period, held down the Shift key, and scroll down to select the start period. If you want to select a number of separate periods, select the first, hold down the Ctrl key, and scroll down to select the others one by one.

Let's find out what has happened to prices since the start of the millennium.

Click on the date at the top (as of today, it's 2013Q1). Hold down the Shift key, scroll down to 1999Q4, and click there.

Last thing: bottom right of the page, there's a box which will currently be showing 'Table on screen', which obviously enough means that when you hit 'Go' (bottom right) the data will show on screen. If you prefer to download the data as a spreadsheet, you can change 'Table on screen' to 'Excel file' (or .csv files for other programmes). Leave it at 'Table on screen', now hit 'Go'.

And hey presto, we're done. The CPI was 836.9 (rounding off a bit) in the last quarter of 1999, and was 1174 in the March quarter of 2013.

You can download the data now, if you like, with the 'Save table' options at the top left, and you can play with the table layout using the 'Edit table' option, also top left.

This was very much a layman's quick guide: there is proper help easily accessible on the site, including 'how to' YouTube videos which you can access from here.

Three final thoughts.

First, Infoshare itself. This is a great free resource. Over the years Stats has been at different points along the 'user pays' spectrum and along the 'easy to use' spectrum. It's settled down at 'a great deal, free' and 'easy to use'. This is terrific, and a tribute to Geoff Bascand, the Government Statistician at the helm, and his very professional team. I've been on Stats' Advisory Committee on Economic Statistics ('ACES') for yonks, and it's been great to see at close quarters how open Stats are to users' needs.

Two, and turning to the substance of the data we just looked at, consumer prices have risen by just over 40% in the past 13.25 years, even in an environment where we have had a low inflation target regime: the average annual rate of inflation over the period was only 2.6%. The conclusion is that even low annual rates of inflation are cumulatively insidious - another reason to be very vigilant about keeping inflation under control and to avoid cockamamie experiments with letting inflation rip.

Three, we tend to forget that inflation is very much a man-made, essentially post Second World War II, phenomenon. Using that same Infoshare enquiry, you'll find that Infoshare has data on the CPI back to 1914. Browse through it, and you find that at the end of World War I, the CPI was around the 24-25 mark, and it was still around 25 at the outbreak of World War II.

The historical record is clear:  nothing says inflation is inevitable (or that it's much of a good thing even at low levels, and it's outright damaging when it's high and variable). We can choose to have it, or we can choose not to.

Best not to.

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