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The Federal Reserve: A wealth of data for business reporters

Federal Reserve

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Federal Reserve managed to work its way into Valentine’s Day hearts across the country this year.

It started with fewer than 140 characters. “You’re my long-run target; my nominal anchor,” @justinwolfers, a University of Pennsylvania economist tweeted a few days early. Within hours, #FedValentines became a trending topic on Twitter.

“My love is elastic, my commitment too big to fail,” tweeted the San Francisco Fed. “When I get that feeling I want quantitative easing,” @bretlowery wrote. “This time before you bail me out, make sure you handcuff me,” said @melaniekahl.

For days, U.S. central bank-inspired love notes have been filling up the Twitterverse. Some tweeters like the way yields curve while others simply can’t get enough of the Fed’s stimulus. Whatever the attraction, one thing the Fed’s fling with the Twitterverse shows is how the central bank can help reporters connect with readers.

In addition to providing fodder for national and international stories, the Fed offers a wealth of information for local, regional and specialty business news reporters. “The trick is to connect the flood of numbers the Fed provides to things that would actually interest people,” said Chris Rugaber, an economics reporter for The Associated Press.

“The flow of funds report is an intimidating pile of data, for example, but it is actually telling you how much money the average American holds in stocks, their net worth, how much debt they have,” he explained.

The report, also known as the Z.1, is released four times a year in March, June, September and December. To the average reader it may look like about 120 pages of numbers and charts virtually guaranteed to make anyone’s eyes glaze over. But to the savvy business reporter, it is much more.

During the Great Recession, The Wall Street Journal’s S. Mitra Kalita deciphered the Fed’s flow of funds data to explain how American families lost nearly 18 percent of their wealth in 2008 – the largest amount since the government started tracking the data after World War II. Kalita used the Fed’s data to explain why Deidre Helberg’s son turned his gaze toward state schools instead of pricier private colleges.

The Fed also publishes something it calls the Beige Book several times a year. The document details economic activity in each of the Fed’s 12 regions. Sifting through its data can give reporters insights into local housing markets, hiring trends and consumer spending. The report also contains other nuggets of interesting information. Last month’s Beige Book, for example, noted reports of government employees sharing rooms to save money rather than booking individually.

Other Fed reports track data including consumer borrowing, manufacturing activity and small business lending.

While the Fed doesn’t always breakout local and regional information, Rugaber said local and regional reporters should be mindful of opportunities to see if national trends are holding true in their areas.

It may not equal a lifetime of love, but it should lead to at least a few good stories.

About the Author

Meena Thiruvengadam is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She worked as a staff reporter for several U.S. newspapers. During the Great Recession, she covered the Treasury, Federal Reserve and economic news for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal in Washington, D.C. She is pursuing a master’s in media strategy and leadership at Northwestern University. She's online at www.meenamedia.com and on twitter at @Meena_Thiru.

Comments (1)

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  1. Anonymous says:

    I am helping my friend out doing a report on Federal Reserve. Do you have any suggestions where we could seek information that could help us out . We think Federal Reserve have negative impact on our society. Negative aspects of central banking.

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