The high-wire act of keeping the country’s economic data secret is guided by a hyper-precise atomic clock and a dryly named 27-year-old rule, Statistical Policy Directive Number 3.
The directive dictates the process for releasing the country’s most closely watched data, including the monthly employment report, the latest of which became public on Friday, and the quarterly gross domestic product readings. Last revised in 1985, the rule spells out who can see the numbers ahead of the release. It is also a framework for keeping a large volume of data processed by a large number of employees top-secret ahead of a pre-scheduled release time.
The stakes of compliance are high. “Fractions of a second can equate to millions or even billions of dollars in market movements,” Carl Fillichio, senior advisor for communications and public affairs at the Labor Department, told members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in June. An early release could send ripples through the global economy and reverberate through Washington, particularly in an election year.
On Friday, after the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that the headline unemployment rate had taken a surprise tumble from 8.1 percent in August to 7.8 percent in September, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch took to Twitter to accuse the Obama administration of manipulating the numbers. The issue became a subject of conversation on Twitter and cable television throughout Friday morning.
But economists and other experts familiar with the government's procedures for compiling the data say that is virtually impossible.
The monthly employment report is released by the BLS, an independent statistical agency within Labor that is staffed by career civil servants, many of whom have served throughout both Democratic and Republican administrations. The Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis is in charge of GDP. Both agencies are guided by the same directive and rely on similar security measures to keep their data secret until the embargo lifts.
Each agency compartmentalizes the raw data. For the employment report, for example, most BLS analysts only see the data for a single sector, such as health care payrolls. Job growth in different sectors varies, making it difficult to get a clear picture of the headline number from a single category. In September, for example, health care picked up 44,000 jobs. Manufacturing, on the other hand, lost 16,000.
Doors to offices where embargoed data is reviewed are locked, and even within those offices, the data is kept in safes, BLS press officer Gary Steinberg said. Just a handful of employees gather in closed-door meetings to compile the final reports. At the BEA, attendees of these meetings adhere to a superstition: They don’t speak the GDP number aloud, said Thomas Dail, a BEA spokesperson. Materials from the meeting are secured; even scraps of paper bearing doodles and ink cartridges are locked up until the BEA embargo lifts.
The Labor Department has had strict policies in place for decades, said Keith Hall, who served from 2008 through this year as the thirteenth commissioner of the BLS. “BLS is keenly aware—I was certainly keenly aware when I was commissioner—that this is data that has a lot of potential value,” he said.
By Hall’s estimate, more than 100 people are involved in the BLS process from collection to its final analysis for the president. It would be very difficult for the administration to manipulate such a crowd.
The data is also compiled under an incredibly tight deadline, leaving little time for manipulation. Hall wouldn’t learn the details of the household survey, which determines the unemployment rate, until Monday of the week it was made public. The payroll data, which determines the number of jobs added or lost, would come to him on Wednesday. All agencies that deal with statistics operate under a similar mantra, he said: “Once you put the data together, don’t hold onto it.”
When the final numbers are ready, Statistical Policy Directive Number 3 requires they be shared with the president through the Chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers before they are released to the public. That means the president does not even see the numbers until late in the day before release.
Hall is particularly well-suited to speak to the process. Before taking on his role at BLS, Hall was chief economist to the Council of Economic Advisors from 2005 to 2008, where he and a handful of colleagues were tasked with summarizing the closely guarded monthly jobs report ahead of its release for President George W. Bush.
On Thursday, the day before the report was publicly released, a BLS official would hand-deliver the memo to the White House, usually around 3 p.m., Hall said. There was talk of transmitting it digitally, but officials couldn’t identify a method secure enough. Sometimes data would be entered into a spreadsheet on a computer isolated from the rest of the White House network.
Administration economic advisers would get to work analyzing and summarizing it for the president. “Even within the Council of Economic Advisors, there’s still only a handful—three or four—who get to see the numbers,” Hall said.
The memo would be put into an envelope and sealed. Copies would be delivered to no more than half-a-dozen people—the president, vice president and whomever else the president wanted to see it. The memo, with Hall’s signature, would be delivered to the president by 7 p.m. or 8 p.m.
The next morning, a small group of journalists, cut off from communication with the outside world, get an early peek at the data in a pre-release lockup. The BEA shares its numbers with the agency’s web team at 7:45 a.m. The team, whose communications have also been cut off, prepares the data for its Internet debut.
“I’m not aware of any concerns that data were within BLS were manipulated for political purposes,” said Steinberg, a long-time employee of the bureau.
Safeguarding the integrity of the data has long been considered a crucial priority among government officials in both parties because the economic numbers are tracked closely by investors around the world who buy and sell U.S. Treasury bonds and stocks in American companies. As countries like Greece and Argentina have had to learn the hard way, any hint that the data might be compromised can gravely harm an economy.
Justin Wolfers, professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan, noted that the papering over of the Greek debt caught Europe and the world by surprise, wreaking havoc on the region. And the clear manipulation of inflation numbers in Argentina has made it difficult for the government to borrow because the debt there is indexed to inflation.
“The madness that’s happening in Argentina really is the first step down a slippery step towards economic ruin,” he said.