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Metamorphosis of Import and Export Price Measurement

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

BLS is planning a major improvement to the Import and Export Price Indexes, and we want your feedback. While the change is nothing compared to the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses (or a caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a butterfly), the change is a shift in the way BLS has traditionally collected data and calculated our official measures of the labor market and economy. Data users and survey respondents have asked BLS whether we can do more with data from sources other than surveys. If you have checked your house value online or shopped for groceries from the comfort of your home, you may have wondered whether official statistics could use the information in these online services too. Data used for official statistics must meet a high bar. Our standard of quality requires BLS data sources to be accurate, objective, and reliable. Once we identify a data source that meets these criteria, we vet our methods through public forums to be transparent and accountable to our data users. This process helps to ensure our measures are accurate, objective, reliable, and also timely.

Survey data have regularly filled these requirements. In today’s digital world, we are looking at how nonsurvey data can supplement or even replace the data we collect from surveys. Uncovering alternatives to survey data can improve quality for our data users and reduce the time it takes to respond to surveys. We appreciate the work that households and businesses do when you answer our surveys. We value your time and look for ways to reduce how long it takes to answer our surveys. For these reasons, we have been working to incorporate nonsurvey data sources that meet our quality standards into BLS official statistics. One major project is to use the trade records provided by companies that import and export across U.S. borders, instead of asking those companies to participate in our International Price survey.

An Evolution for the Import and Export Price Indexes

BLS estimates monthly price indexes for international trade across U.S. borders and publishes them in the report U.S. Import and Export Price Indexes. The measures cover nearly all goods and a small portion of services. Historically, the price indexes are calculated using data submitted to BLS by surveyed companies. BLS began examining whether and how we could use the administrative trade records that the U.S. Census Bureau uses for their official statistics on U.S. trade. BLS already was using the administrative trade records to select a representative sample of companies for the International Price survey. The possibility of using the data as a monthly source of prices, however, required further research.

We calculated import and export price indexes using the new data source for detailed product classifications. Each administrative record is a shipper’s account of a bulk shipment, so we had to figure out how to change the current index methods to identify specific products and track fast-moving changes in trade patterns.

Research results show that the administrative trade records successfully estimate import and export price indexes for goods that are pretty standard—commodities like soybeans, crude petroleum, and aluminum, or generic items such as tires and fabrics. You can find the research data using the new source and methods on our research page for import and export price indexes.

Transparent Transfiguration

We are now working to implement this improvement in the official monthly price indexes in 2025. About a third of the prices we have requested in our survey in the past will no longer be requested; we instead will use the Census Bureau administrative trade records. For the businesses that trade in the product categories like those described above, we may no longer ask them to participate in the survey, or we may ask them to provide prices for fewer items. About 40 percent of import and export price indexes will benefit from the improvement. The new approach will add more data to many currently published price indexes and also provide enough prices to publish indexes that currently are not published.

We will continue to ask about certain product areas in our survey, such as industrial and household equipment and consumer goods. Direct collection allows us to obtain price information for the considerable variety of products in these categories.

The new data source and revised index methods for import and export prices are one of many ways BLS is improving our measures. BLS has prepared a technical explanation of these changes to inform the public, and we invite you to share your views. See the Federal Register notice to learn more. You can share your thoughts by emailing