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Bureau of economic analysis (BEA)

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Service/portal name: http://www.bea.doc.gov
Source description: The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), a division of the U.S.

Department of Commerce, provides economic statistics in support of government, business, and individual decision making.

The cornerstone of the BEA is the national income and products account (NIPA), whose key element is the gross domestic product (GDP).

As stated on the Web site, “the BEA prepares national, regional, industry, and international accounts that present essential information on such key issues as economic growth, regional economic development, inter-industry relationships, and the Nation’s position in the word economy.”

As an example of the wide variety of information available on the BEA Web site, the table below presents a portion of a table reporting personal income statistics.

Pricing. Access to the Web site is free, and the majority of the tables are available at no cost. The comprehensive files that must be purchased cost $35 or less.

Source content: This site is divided into the four sections listed below:
• National Economic Accounts provides an overview of how the U.S. economy is performing.

• Industry Economic Accounts analyzes the input of private industry and the government to the GDP.

• Regional Economic Accounts contains reports showing estimates and analysis of personal income, population, employment, and gross state product.

• International Economic Accounts includes a number of charts providing breakdowns of U.S. direct investment abroad, foreign direct investment in the U.S., and the balance of payment.

The charts are available in a variety of formats, including HTML, PDF, text, XLS, and CSV.

Large tables providing historical data are presented in zip or self-extracting.exe formats.

There are also many technical notes and articles explaining how the data is analyzed. These documents, generally hyperlinked to the table or chart they explain, include descriptions of the data sources and the assumptions made in the compilation of the table or chart.

Additionally, the researcher will find links (under Publications) to the monthly Survey of Current Business, which provides articles and tables related to the four main areas of statistical data provided by the BEA. Links are included for issues from 1994 to the present.

Source evaluation: This site provides a wealth of information for the researcher charged with tracking the economic health of the United States.

For the most part, the site is clealry organized and labeled. That said, the sheer number of tables available might overwhelm the first-time user, as the assumption is that the user is familiar with the various tables offered.

For instance, a new user may not know what data will be retrieved when the link to “Current period estimates for tables 1 through 10 in the International Transactions Accounts” is clicked.

For help with the International Economic Accounts portion of the site, you can click on the Interactive Access link for a list of the table names.

The other option is to go to the Methodologies section of the Web site to find descriptions of the available economic indicators provided in each of the major sections.

The tables are updated on varying schedules. Some come out monthly, others are published quarterly or annually. Annual and five-year compliations are provided for most tables.

Tables covering larger time spans can be downloaded or purchased on disk or CD. Not all historical tables are provided free of charge.

The BEA site does not include a search engine. The Help file suggests that the user go to the FirstGov Web site (http://www.firstgov.gov) if a search function is needed.

To test this, I used FirstGov to execute a search for a BEA table showing the depreciation of customer durable goods.

I found what I was looking for by using the advanced search feature. Using FirstGov is a good idea if you aren’t sure if the data you are looking for exists, or which agency publishes it.

Nevertheless, I don’t recommend this approach for searching for specific items that you know are on the BEA site; I found the table more quickly by simply browsing the BEA Web site itself.

Instead of a search engine, this site provides an Index to the NIPA Tables (http://www.bea.doc.gov/bea/dn/nipaweb/NIPATableIndex.htm). This is useful for finding specific tables, but it is slow.

The page is very large and takes a while to load, even using a high-speed connection. The index is another example of the need for previous experience with the tables to retrieve the needed data.

Under the index term Amusements is a list for “Personal consumption expenditures 2.4, 2.5, 2.6, 2.7, 7.5, 7.20.”

Each number is a link to a table. There are instructions for deciphering the numbering system at the bottom of the index, but the explanation is incomplete. The use either needs to know what table is needed, or must consult the list of NIPA tables.

All of the sections provide some degree of interactive access to the data. In the regional section, the user can select specific datasets, specify geographic areas (states), and select the needed dates.

Once all selections are complete, a table is created. The national, industry, and international sections allow the user to change certain aspects of a table (e.g., years covered, annual versus quarterly data) once a table has been selected.

Technical support is available only via e-mail. There is no charge for requesting assistance.

E-mail addresses are listed for questions pertaining to each of the four sections of the site.

Besides, there is a list of names and phone numbers to contact with specific questions about the statistics provided.

The Using of Our Site link is meant as the training area. This document deal primarily with the file formats used, as well as printing, privacy, and so on, but it provides little assistance with actually using the site.

It does provide a link to A Tour of BEA’s Web Site. This file is very dated and some of the information is no longer valid, but an updated version is due out soon.

As of this writing, the BEA is offering a preview of a newly redesigned Web site that describes the nature of the changes (see http://www.bea.doc.gov/bea/delete/bea/redesign/index.htm). The look of the site will change, and it will also offer improved navigation, an A-Z index, and “fingertip” access to economic indicators. It looks like the site will be even easier to use after this redesign.

Despite the shortcomings of this site, it is an invaluable resource for the business researcher.

With just a little experience, the user can find a vast amount of data with only a few clicks. The monthly updates make the information very timely.

The site is easy to use once the user is accustomed to the layout. It would be even easier if the developers were more consistent with design (e.g., making all interactive access the same).

Although I don’t find the lack of a search engine a problem, my one suggestion is that the Index to NIPA Tables be divided into smaller parts so it loads more quickly.

Since I didn’t ask for technical support, I don’t know how quick the response time is. I do like the idea of having names and phone numbers available for dealing with questions about the data.

Source value rating: All of the data source reviewers were asked to rate each source on the basis of the following eight categories, using “10” as the highest rating and “1” as the lowest (“80” being a perfect score):

1. Relative cost-to-value:   10
2. Relative timeliness of data:   10
3. Relative comprehensiveness of data:  10
4. Ease of use:     8
5. Search options available:   5
6. Level of support services:   7
7. Level of training offered:   6
8. Amount/kinds of special services offered: 8
Total Rating:     64

Useful tips
• Give yourself time to explore the BEA site.
• View the list of NIPA tables first. Don’t waste time looking for a report that doesn’t exist.

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