Getting the numbers right

Alvis Pauga has spent most of his career working with trade statistics. Over the last three decades, he's seen them become more accurate, more comprehensive and, thanks to the Internet, more accessible. But there's still room for improvement.

An example: Statistics on inland origin and destination of imports and exports. Most import shipments don't stop at the port but move to inland destinations. Unfortunately, the statistics on those movements don't always provide an accurate picture.

That's a problem for ship lines, ports, railroads, trucking companies and just about anyone who makes decisions - and investments - based on projected cargo flows. "It's a real issue," Pauga says, "especially with the way the boom in imports is taxing the capacity of the U.S. intermodal infrastructure."

Pauga, a New Jersey-based trade and transportation consultant, is vice chairman of International Trade Data Users Inc. (www.itdu.org), which will hold a two-day conference on trade dynamics and trade flows May 5-6 at the World Trade Institute at Pace University in New York. Besides origin and destination data, the conference will address such topics as the Automated Export System, underreporting of import-export statistics and a case study of how trade data are used in an anti-dumping case. The conference will coincide with a meeting of the users group of PIERS, the Port Import/Export Reporting Service, a sister company of the JoC.

International Trade Data Users is a nonprofit group whose name accurately describes its membership. ITDU participants have included ship lines, air-cargo carriers, railroads, ports, consulting firms and government agencies such as the Census Bureau, Customs, the Army Corps of Engineers, Maritime Administration and Agriculture Department.

ITDU was incorporated in 1995, taking the place of an industry group that began meeting with government officials more than 20 years earlier to discuss ways to improve statistics on airborne foreign trade. In the late 1970s, the group's mission expanded to include maritime data. In the 1980s, it was broadened further to cover the entire field of foreign trade statistics.

ITDU was active until 1999 but lapsed into dormancy as members changed jobs and the Sept. 11 attacks disrupted routines. The group was revived last year, and Pauga says ITDU hopes to hold two conferences a year, plus occasional half-day seminars on specific issues.

It's an organization with no ax to grind, other than a desire to find ways to make trade statistics as complete, accurate and accessible as possible. The need for good data is clear. "Assumptions are based on data, and decisions are highly leveraged on those assumptions," Pauga says. "If the assumptions are wrong, there's the potential that a lot of time and money will be wasted, and that investments will be made in the wrong place."

Joseph Bonney is editor of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at (973) 848-7139, or at jbonney@joc.com.

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