Fri, Nov 17, 2000 - Page 1 News List

Consumer confidence report is killed

By Patrick Kearns  /  STAFF REPORTER

What you don't know can't hurt you. In the administration's latest move to manipulate the economy, top number crunchers surprised the nation yesterday by refusing to make public "abnormal" consumer confidence figures.

State statisticians permanently canceled the release of a quarterly consumer confidence survey yesterday, saying the poor results reflected a lack of rationality on the part of consumers. The agency said the decision was designed to lessen the burden on Taiwan's already-shaky economy.

"We don't want to mislead the public ... as the survey results are not normal. If we publish this weird number, it would have a bad influence on both the markets and the economy," said Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics (DGBAS, 主計處) researcher Ben Chang. Speaking with the Taipei Times by phone yesterday, Chang refused to disclose the exact results of the poll, but did say the findings "Were not normal and [were] not good."

In an official written statement, the DGBAS said the survey -- under the influence of non-economic factors -- had lost its objectivity and accuracy, thereby the decision was made to withhold the information from the public. Government intervention in the economy -- a common practice in the stock, banking and industrial markets -- has taken on new meaning with the DGBAS' failure to make public the survey's findings.

The quarterly index of consumer confidence -- which the government began tabulating in 1998 -- covers six categories including the outlook on household finances, job opportunities, the domestic economy and inflation. The survey also polls public investment sentiment on the bourse and fixed assets.

Reacting to the surprise cancellation, pundits say while political and economic uncertainty has jolted consumer confidence, that's no reason to cancel the free flow of information.

"[While] based on the political situation the cancelation makes sense, consumers have a right to know, and the government has a responsibility to tell the public" [the outcome of the survey ] said Taipei University economics professor Wang To-far (王塗發). "If [the government] doesn't like the results of the survey ... or there is something wrong with the results, that is not cause to cancel the survey."

Asked whether consumers were able to complete the survey rationally -- and whether politics played a role in the decision-making process -- Wang said: "While people may be overreacting [to financial issues] they are not irrational."

Instead of blaming consumers, Wang said the political community bore the responsibility for improving the economic climate. "Until the political situation can be improved, how can consumers be asked to change their behavior?"

And the public is quite clear on the depth of Taiwan's political infighting.

"Consumers are worried about the political uncertainty, [so] the government didn't want to dampen consumer confidence further" by releasing the poll results, Primasia Securities economist Irmak Surenkok said.

But contrary to DGBAS statements that non-economic factors are at play, Surenkok says tightening pocketbooks -- both internationally and domestically -- are also key factors in the consumer confidence slide.

"A lot of people are losing a lot of money in the stock market, and that has triggered the cut in consumer consumption. [Also due to] moderation in global growth, Taiwan consumer confidence will not go up any time soon," Surenkok said.

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