In federal parlance, this is called the “weekly economic activity index”. This new indicator from the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco) has been published every week since December. It is “an early and experimental economic indicator,” says Seco. But it has the merit of “summarizing in a single index the information provided by high frequency data”.
This initiative is the most visible manifestation of an exacerbated need for information, since the start of the crisis, in March 2020. An economy cut off in its tracks, paralyzed, then almost completely liberated, and then again restricted, in the ‘waiting to be able to find normality. These roller coasters, experts, policymakers and other forecasters must learn to manage them. To analyze the unprecedented behaviors of a so-called “stop & go” economy, they need to rely on rapid and frequent indicators which, sometimes, still lack precision. Or simply legitimacy.
Not enough hindsight to estimate reliability
When it comes to statistics, all eyes are obviously on the Federal Statistical Office (FSO). “We’ve been feeling this pressure for some time,” says Philippe Küttel, head of the economic section of the OFS. But beyond this need for speed, we also have quality requirements ”.
This double stake, sometimes contradictory, does not prevent the OFS from exploring new avenues. Among the developments, Philippe Küttel mentioned a project on the extension of statistics on the turnover of service providers. And a change in the pace, from quarterly to monthly, of turnover in the industry. The 2021 program also includes advancement, with an external representative, of the “smartphone” pilot project, for a micro-census on mobility and transport.
Another visible proof of this desire to stay up to date, a project dedicated to experimental statistics was already opened in 2018. On this crisis in particular, the OFS explains that “a provisional and experimental weighting was calculated, in order to be able to disseminate more quickly information on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on well-being and of Swiss life ”. This data was published five months after the end of the first semester. It’s twice as fast as usual.
Experimental. It is also the qualifier used by Maxime Botteron, economist at Credit Suisse. “Our forecasting process has not changed. However, we use these new indicators to get a better idea of the impact of the measures taken on activity, which is particularly useful given the unprecedented nature of the crisis ”. But he is careful. “We do not have enough hindsight to be able to judge their reliability”.
With AirBnb, Booking, Expedia or Tripadvisor, the discussions are complex. It is Eurostat, the European statistical institute, which negotiates and collects the data and then provides them by country.
An explosion of e-commerce
Maxime Botteron nevertheless evokes three interesting tools: those related to mobility (Google, Apple, Intervista). The new weekly indicator of Seco, as well as the “Monitoring Consumption Switzerland”, developed in collaboration between the universities of Lausanne (Unil), St. Gallen and the Enterprise 4 Society center. This indicator analyzes transactions carried out by bank cards. “Not only do we get information quickly and with a relatively high frequency, but also data on the categories of expenditure.”
This allows, for example, already to know that between January 18 and 24, that is to say since non-essential shops were closed, that consumer spending, excluding food, drinks and tobacco, fell by 60%, for example. compared to the previous two weeks.
In another register, a history that has been growing for two years also serves to confirm that e-commerce has exploded: in January 2019, the Swiss were spending some 5 million francs online per month to fill their fridge. These amounts are now around 12 million francs.
At Unil, Rafael Lalive is one of those working on this new tool. “I understand that there may still be some reluctance, concedes the economist. To publish a statistic, you have to know it very well, be able to compare it, have a very high quality standard ”. But with the coronavirus and, of course, digitization, “the economy has evolved at an impressive rate. It is essential to have new sources of information complementary to statistics. Their frequency allows decision-makers to be informed when they need to take action ”.
The sinews of war, the data
On the production side, several indicators are also emerging. At ETH Zurich, the Kof Economic Institute uses the federal job search platform Work room. It collects daily data on the number of jobseeker profiles and thus obtains a “real-time” view of the state of the labor market.
But in the era of digitization and the explosion of online activities, access to data from web giants appears essential. Except that the discussions are complex, tempers Philippe Küttel. “With AirBnb, Booking, Expedia or Tripadvisor, it’s Eurostat (the European statistical institute, editor’s note) who negotiates and collects the data then provides them by country ”. Another work in progress, therefore. “Having access to this data, rather than carrying out surveys, reduces the burden on businesses and households,” concludes Philippe Küttel. But it remains relevant to combine the two ”.