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November, 2012

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  Thought you understood economy? StatsCan to send Canadians back to school


By Julian Beltrame, The Canadian Press


OTTAWA - Statistics Canada is about to retell the country's economic history for the past 30 years in a new move that will also provide more insight into murky economic concepts.

Starting Monday morning, the federal data agency will issue a comprehensive revision to economic data of the past 30 years, introducing new measures and changing the definition of others.

The exercise two years in the making and designed to comply with revised international standards of economic measurements set out in 2008 will put Canada in the forefront of nations, along with Australia, in adopting the new way of measuring economic performance.

Others have pledged to follow; the United States in 2013 and Europe in 2014.

It's a big deal, say economists, but it won't change the way Canadians feel about their economic place in the space at present, or in the past.

Some gross domestic product numbers will likely move marginally up, in part because research and development will be capitalized and some services will be added to the export tally.

But in broad terms, Statistics Canada is not rewriting the past the new data will still dutifully record the slumps of the early 80s and 90s, the growth spurts that followed, and the great recession of 2008-09 and tepid recovery since.

"There's no real change in the economic history of Canada," says Jim Tebrake, Statistics Canada's director of the income and expenditure accounts division.

"There are changes from quarter to quarter, but nothing of significance. The business cycle is still the business cycle."

The value of the exercise, says Paul Jacobson, a Toronto-based consulting economist who has followed the process closely, is to give economic policy-makers and analysts a more precise picture of the ebb and flow of economic movements.

But it will take some getting used to. CIBC chief economist Avery Shenfeld has compared it to the transition from Fahrenheit to Celsius.

The comparison is somewhat apt because one of the benefits will be that countries, once they've followed suit, will more easily be able to stack their economies and component parts against each other.

But even economists will need some time to adjust, Jacobson says, adding that he has arranged for a four-hour seminar on the subject later in the month.

"I've been warning people for months this is going to be a biggie, but not everybody's been paying attention." he says. "Every single identifier people are using is changing, all the matrices change."

He believes the exercise will be worth it. "It's going to make things clearer about what the devil is going on."

The new standards will be a bonanza for "data wonks," Tebrake agrees. That's because they will have so many more data points to follow.

For instance, total exports is currently broken down into seven groupings, now it will be 35. For personal expenditures, StatsCan will issue 100 sub-groupings for analysts to ponder, instead of the previous 38.

The business sector will be split between financial and non-financial corporations, and household income will become more precise after jettisoning tribal government activity, non-profit institutions, and other sectors that really had little relevance to households. Now they will have their own category.

"It's a much purer and clear measure," Teblake explains.

"I think at the end of the day it's a more relevant product. Anyone who does forecasts has much better data at their disposal."

The changes include re-definitions of categories and new terminology. For instance, terms such as corporate profits, labour income and personal expenditures will be no more.

One impact, say analysts, is that forecasters may need re-adjust their models to incorporate the new definitions, categories and adjusted GDP results.

But while Monday's release by the agency is unlikely to impact the market or the Bank of Canada's thinking about monetary policy, Shenfeld says there is a potential to alter some perceptions, if in the margins.

"If real GDP growth has been faster than we thought, Canada's productivity performance hasn't been as worrisome as feared," he explains in a note issued to clients Friday.

At the same time, he said, changes in the definition of the household sector could result in Canadians realizing they are even more in debt on average than they thought, or maybe not.

In the end, he said, it will likely mean having "to get used to thinking in Celsius."