The democracy of data: how Venezuelans can stand up to government lies – Alberto Cavallo

MIT Sloan Assoc. Prof. Alberto Cavallo

From infobae

Venezuela, once one of Latin America’s wealthiest countries, appears to be teetering on the brink of collapse. Its economy is shrinking. Food is in short supply. Its currency—the bolivar—is virtually worthless, and inflation appears to be out of control. But, in light of the fact that the country’s Central Bank stopped publishing inflation data in December 2015, no one has an accurate picture of just how dire the situation is.

This dearth of inflation data may seem like an academic problem, but in actual fact, economic indicators are no small things. Without official statistics, it’s impossible to draw accurate conclusions about the wellbeing of the Venezuelan people. The lack of data has consequences on a micro level, too. The inflation rate, for instance, is a vital number for anyone who wants to negotiate a wage, decide on an affordable rent, or make any savings or financial plans for the future.

With a government intent on suppressing important information, many Venezuelans are angry. As a native from Argentina —another Latin American country that lied about inflation in the past—I feel their pain. As an economist, I urge them to fuel their frustration into action.

Earlier this year, my colleagues and I started a project to measure inflation in Venezuela using a new and highly effective technique: crowdsourcing with mobile phones. My team developed a special app for android phones that allows people in the country to report the prices of everyday products and services. We then aggregate the data to estimate the level of inflation. Over the past five months, we have collected more than 3,000 observations from 1,000 products in 10 cities around the country.

Our data indicates that Venezuela’s inflation rate is about 25% on a monthly basis, which represents one of highest rates in the world.

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Shopping online probably won’t save you money — Alberto Cavallo

MIT Sloan Asst. Prof. Alberto Cavallo

MIT Sloan Assistant Professor Alberto Cavallo

From MarketWatch

If you’re a bargain hunter, it’s common to spend time researching prices before making purchases. After all, you wouldn’t want to buy a washing machine at your local Lowes store only to find a lower price offered on Lowes.com. However, I found in a recent study that retailers’ offline and online prices are the same more than 70% of the time.

That’s good news for consumers, who don’t need to worry about price comparisons when deciding whether to use a retailer’s website or visit a local store. They can choose instead based on other factors like convenience and product availability.

This finding is important for economists too. Online prices are increasingly being used in measurement and research applications, including studies of pricing behaviors, price stickiness, international relative prices, and exchange-rate dynamics. Many national statistical offices are even considering the use of online data in official consumer price Indexes.

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Argentina’s inflation deception — Alberto Cavallo

MIT Sloan Asst. Prof. Alberto Cavallo

For years Argentina has lied to the world about its inflation rate. INDEC, the official statistics institute, claims the country’s inflation rate stands at around 10%. But estimates by economists—myself included—show that figure is two to three times less than the real rate. According to MIT’s Billion Prices Project, which runs an index that aggregates online price information from the largest supermarkets all over the world and provides real-time inflation estimates, Argentina’s inflation rate is currently about 25%.

This vast discrepancy between reality and what the government claims has been observed since 2007. At that time the government began putting pressure on INDEC, traditionally an independent body, to change its statistical methodologies. It eventually fired workers responsible for creating the price index, and replaced them with employees who had close ties to the government. Since then the official inflation rate has been surprisingly stable—hovering around10%. Read More »