Statistical perfection is over the horizon

The quality of statistics is improving in Nigeria and most other jurisdictions. We need look no further than at the state of the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) ten years ago to make the point. The authorities accept the value of good data, not least for the investment community. We remember, showing our age, pointing out to a federal finance minister at a conference before the return of civilian rule in 1999 that several African micro-states without oil revenue were able to produce far more detailed and timely statistics than Nigeria. He was not bothered, and gave the unspoken message that the FGN would flourish with or without the data.

The FGN and its agencies, of course, are now “on message”. The reworking of the national accounts in 2014, supported on the technical side by Nigeria’s multilateral and bilateral partners, proved the point. As a result of the first rebasing for close to 20 years, the economy in 2013 was 89 per cent larger than had previously been thought. This was welcomed in official circles but, more importantly, investors had a reasonably accurate snapshot of the economy. The reworking showed, for example, that the largest segment of the economy was (is) the services sector not agriculture.

The rebasing should take place every ten years according to international best practice, so a new Herculean effort should be under consideration. This reinforces the point that the quality of data supply requires regular and steady funding so that research work in the field and number-crunching in the office can continue without interruption. The standing of the data provider suffers whenever regular reports are not released on schedule. The labour force and unemployment reports are a case in point.

In the current straitened fiscal circumstances, a sharp increase in funding for statistical provision is highly unlikely. If such somehow materialized, we would like to see: a monthly report on producer price inflation to complement the CPI series, and seasonally adjusted national accounts from the NBS; fuller data on official reserves from the CBN, perhaps on the model of the South African Reserve Bank; and an update of the 2006 census. We could easily add to the wish-list.

There is a need to respond to periodic loose talk about national and international statistics. Only national sources can provide core macroeconomic data. Only they have the resources and only they have the remit. There are flaws in the data but we have to work with what we have got. Once we have understood the methodology and have identified the inconsistencies, we still have invaluable data for our analysis. Our fairly bright take is based upon FGN data, and would be brutal if we were commenting upon the statistics emanating from state governments.

The IMF produces its comprehensive monthly International Financial Statistics with detailed country pages. This is an essential tool for country and cross-country analysis but the data are drawn from national sources. International sources have a role to play in the supply of social and business indicators, examples being the UN Development Programme’s human development index and the World Bank Group’s Ease of Doing Business reports.

Survey-based league tables abound: some have their rightful place in the sun such as Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index and others are designed to give their creators, notably management consultancies and think tanks, free publicity on the newswires. Additionally, a new genre of data collection firms is providing material of obvious interest to businesses selling consumer goods and services. Typically, they combine traditional methods with geospatial sources and tech to track spending patterns. The US-based Fraym released a report last year quantifying premium and other consumers across Africa (Finding the Dynamic African Consumer). Another operation, Reach Technologies, drew upon eight million users of its app to chart the top ten transactions in more than 50 cities in Kenya and Nigeria in 2018.

The provision of data in Nigeria is broader than may appear at first sight. Alongside the official sources (the CBN, the NBS and the Debt Management Office notably), we can access a selection of social indicators, league tables and new-era statistics. There is no perfect provision: possible improvements are endless. The journey is becoming a little smoother with the rise in financial inclusion, which stood at 63.6 per cent in 2018, at the expense of the informal economy. It would be much smoother more quickly in the unlikely event of a sharp increase in funding for statistical agencies.

Developed economies are making the same journey with some mistakes on the road. It emerged last year in Japan that national wage data had been understated for 15 years, and that 20 million people had therefore not made adequate payments for unemployment insurance. In the flawless statistical world to which we all aspire, we would add up all the current-account surpluses and deficits across the world, and arrive at a figure of zero. Sadly, we don’t.

Gregory Kronsten

Head, Macroeconomic & Fixed Income Research


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