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date: 30 November 2020

Measurement Error: A Primer for Macroeconomistslocked

  • Simon van NordenSimon van NordenDepartment of Finance, HEC Montréal

Summary

Most applied researchers in macroeconomics who work with official macroeconomic statistics (such as those found in the National Accounts, the Balance of Payments, national government budgets, labor force statistics, etc.) treat data as immutable rather than subject to measurement error and revision. Some of this error may be caused by disagreement or confusion about what should be measured. Some may be due to the practical challenges of producing timely, accurate, and precise estimates. The economic importance of measurement error may be accentuated by simple arithmetic transformations of the data, or by more complex but still common transformations to remove seasonal or other fluctuations. As a result, measurement error is seemingly omnipresent in macroeconomics.

Even the most widely used measures such as Gross Domestic Products (GDP) are acknowledged to be poor measures of aggregate welfare as they omit leisure and non-market production activity and fail to consider intertemporal issues related to the sustainability of economic activity. But even modest attempts to improve GDP estimates can generate considerable controversy in practice. Common statistical approaches to allow for measurement errors, including most factor models, rely on assumptions that are at odds with common economic assumptions which imply that measurement errors in published aggregate series should behave much like forecast errors. Fortunately, recent research has shown how multiple data releases may be combined in a flexible way to give improved estimates of the underlying quantities.

Increasingly, the challenge for macroeconomists is to recognize the impact that measurement error may have on their analysis and to condition their policy advice on a realistic assessment of the quality of their available information.

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