The federal government shutdown is drying up a river of data that U.S. agencies put out daily on everything from job growth to divorce rates.
The data vacuum may seem trivial compared with the closing of national parks and Head Start programs for kids. But it's likely to affect stock markets and even business hiring and investment, especially if it drags on more than a week or two, economists and industry officials say.
Some Web sites, including those of the Census Bureau and Commerce Department, are closed completely, cutting off even existing and historical information from policymakers and think tanks.
The most significant report that's expected to be delayed is the Labor Department's closely watched survey on U.S. employment in September, due out Friday.
A report on August construction spending already was put off. And a batch of other data releases aimed at gauging the economy's health the past two months will likely be postponed if the shutdown persists next week, including factory orders, retail sales and wholesale prices.
"It creates some uncertainty about how well the economy is doing," says economist Paul Ashworth of Capital Economics.
If the shutdown is brief, the delays should last just a week or so. "It could end up reducing volatility (in stocks) because people are not trading in split-second time frames based on the most recent" release, says Sam Stovall, chief equity strategist for S&P Capital IQ.
But if the standoff goes on for many days, markets effectively will be "walking in the dark," Stovall says. "You've got to be more cautious" and trading volumes could be reduced. Eventually, he says, investors "will be unnerved because (they're) missing confirmation that (they're) on the right track" about the course of the economy.
The impasse comes at a critical time, with Federal Reserve policymakers scrutinizing myriad data to determine whether to pull back their bond-buying stimulus. Still, Ashworth says, few economists expect the Fed to taper the stimulus in October after putting off such a move last month.
An even bigger concern is that the Labor Department won't be able to conduct its October employment survey in the week that includes that 12th of the month, as it routinely does. That could skew the report because it won't be comparable to every other job survey, Ashworth says.
And if the showdown lasts the entire month, U.S. agencies won't be able to collect any data on the economy in a month when growth is expected to be significantly hobbled because of the shutdown. "Uncertainty is a bad idea during a crisis," says Justin Wolfer, a University of Michigan economics professor.
Industries, from manufacturers to retailers, also rely on the government data to help make strategic decisions. "They're not going to know -- is the economy picking up? Can I bring on another worker and invest in plant and equipment?" says Chad Moutray, chief economist of the National Association of Manufacturers.
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