Playing Around With Data

In yesterday’s post, I spoke about collection, and a teeny-tiny bit about the history of the institutions behind data collection exercises in India.1

In today’s post, I’ll compare two websites – one American and one Indian – to show you how both countries allow researchers to use the data that has been collected. Spoiler alert: the American website does a way better job. The idea isn’t to run down the Indian website, but to see how much distance we need to cover in terms of improvement.

And I think it is a worthwhile question to ask – why is the American website so much better? What is it about us that we cannot come up with a website of a similar quality? Is it a question of capacity, of bureaucratic inertia, of not enough demand from the research community in India or something else altogether? This is a topic worth thinking about… but not today.


The American website is FRED, hosted by the St Louis branch of the Federal Reserve. FRED stands for Federal Reserve Economic Data, and it is a magnificent resource. It really and truly is.

Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED) is a database maintained by the Research division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis that has more than 765,000 economic time series from 96 sources. The data can be viewed in graphical and text form or downloaded for import to a database or spreadsheet, and viewed on mobile devices. They cover banking, business/fiscal, consumer price indexes, employment and population, exchange rates, gross domestic product, interest rates, monetary aggregates, producer price indexes, reserves and monetary base, U.S. trade and international transactions, and U.S. financial data. The time series are compiled by the Federal Reserve and many are collected from government agencies such as the U.S. Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The economic data published on FRED are widely reported in the media and play a key role in financial markets. In a 2012 Business Insider article titled “The Most Amazing Economics Website in the World”, Joe Weisenthal quoted Paul Krugman as saying: “I think just about everyone doing short-order research — trying to make sense of economic issues in more or less real time — has become a FRED fanatic.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Reserve_Economic_Data

I’ve been using the website for years now in classes that I teach, but I’m sure there are features of the website that I have not been able to use. It’s got the ability to create charts on the fly, it has embeddable widgets, it even has a functional Excel add-in.

If you’re looking at this website for the first time, try going through these exercises. Or, if you are a video kind of person, try this playlist on YouTube.

It is, all things considered, a wonderful way to take a look at data – mostly American, naturally, but it does have a whole host of other data series as well.


The Indian website is our comparable offering: the database on the Indian economy. As you will see once you click on the link, it isn’t nearly as user-friendly as FRED, and in my experience, the website itself isn’t always “up” all the time. There isn’t, to the best of my knowledge, a YouTube channel that explains how to use the website, and while there is a brochure about DBIE, it isn’t quite as helpful as it ought to be.

Indian researchers will also visit the MOSPI website often. That is the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation. If you read the link supplied in the first footnote of today’s blogpost, you will know that MOSPI is the culmination of India’s data collection exercises – these have been ongoing since at least 1881.

The MOSPI website itself is a bit problematic, because there are two now. One is mospi.nic.in, which is the one I have linked to above, and the other is mospi.gov.in. This one seems to not be fully functional just yet, and the data is far from complete. Gratifyingly, what little data there is on the new website is made available in Excel formats.

That is actually a major problem, because on the old (but current, if you see what I mean) MOSPI, data is given in PDF format. There is an army of Indian researchers who have fought the Great PDF Wars, as a consequence, and therefore have learnt about Chrome extensions, and about Tabula. If you are planning on researching the Indian economy, you will have to acquire these skills sooner or later, for MOSPI and DBIE are the best we have on offer in terms of data portals2.


I said I won’t speak about the “why” regarding data portal quality, but I would like to offer a suggestion about the “how” in terms of improving it.

Appoint an educational institute to be the nodal agency3, and get them to work on a report about what needs to change, and why and how, for the DBIE website to become better than it is right now. That doesn’t mean (at all) a blind copy of FRED, awesome though FRED definitely is.

And if the team that does end up working on this is also allowed to come up with a beta version of the new website, well, that would just be the proverbial cherry on top.

I mean, why not?

  1. Really teeny-tiny bit. Please read the whole thing[]
  2. that are free and government run. There are other data portals available, but of course one must pay for them[]
  3. IGIDR would be a good pick for obvious reasons[]

EC101: Links for 20th June, 2019

  1. “One needs to be cautious in these type of businesses trading at higher multiples as slip in any one of the parameters – decline in sales and profit growth, build up of debt, deterioration in working capital, capital misallocation – wrong acquisitions and expansions will lead to derating of the stock quickly. The company has shown no signs of these as of now and investors need to keep a close look at these.”
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    A vastly under-rated skill among economics students. The theory of (and in this case also the application of) reading a balance sheet. Read this article to get a sense of how to read one – and in an ideal world, try to write a similar article about a firm of your choice.
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  2. “In other words, to quote Simon, “so long as the rate of interest remains constant, an advance in technology can only produce a rising level of real wages. The only route through which technological advance could lower real wages would be by increasing the capital coefficient (the added cost being compensated by a larger decline in the labor coefficient), thereby creating a scarcity of capital and pushing interest rates sharply upward.” In other words, the price of capital would have to rise by more than the price of consumption.”
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    Under what circumstances will advances in technology cause the real wage rate to go down? The vastly under-rated Herbert Simon provided an answer to this question way back when – read this article to find out its rediscovery.
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  3. “Now that the crisis is in the rearview mirror and the current expansion is nearing the longest on record, is it possible to go back to having a balance sheet as small as in 2007? The answer is no. The amount of currency in circulation has grown so much that it is not possible to shrink the balance sheet to its earlier size. This is good news because it reflects a growing economy. The larger balance sheet also reflects banks wanting to hold more reserves at the Fed. Banks partly hold these highly liquid and essentially risk-free assets to meet new liquidity regulations designed to improve the resilience of the overall financial system.”
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    A short, but useful essay about the huge expansion to the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet, and why it is unlikely to shrink anytime soon. A useful read for students of monetary economics.
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  4. “The correlation phrase has become so common and so irritating that a minor backlash has now ensued against the rhetoric if not the concept. No, correlation does not imply causation, but it sure as hell provides a hint. Does email make a man depressed? Does sadness make a man send email? Or is something else again to blame for both? A correlation can’t tell one from the other; in that sense it’s inadequate. Still, if it can frame the question, then our observation sets us down the path toward thinking through the workings of reality, so we might learn new ways to tweak them. It helps us go from seeing things to changing them.”
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    The phrase is burned onto my brain, as it is for everybody else who ever attended a statistics class. “Correlation is not causation” Sure, it isn’t – but this article warns us against the over-use of this phrase, and how it might have ended up making us not think deeper.
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  5. “The Baumol effect reminds us that all prices are relative prices. An implication is that over time prices have very little connection to affordability. If the price of the same can of soup is higher at Wegmans than at Walmart we understand that soup is more affordable at Walmart. But if the price of the same can of soup is higher today than in the past it doesn’t imply that soup was more affordable in the past, even if we have done all the right corrections for inflation.”
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    A short, but very readable interpretation of the Baumol effect – and as this excerpt makes clear, also a great reminder of the fact that all prices, everywhere and always, are relative.