Vietnam statistics: every agency for itself

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   A forklift truck prepares to load containers in Saigon Port, Ho Chi Minh City. While the General Statistics Office (GSO) put the trade deficit as of May at US$1.9 billion, customs' figure is just $1.2 billion./PHOTO: DIEP DUC MINH

Vietnamese policymakers and people alike are flummoxed by statistics put out by official agencies that are inconsistent and often at odds with each other and even with international organizations. 

According to the General Statistics Office (GSO), for instance, the trade deficit as of May was US$1.9 billion, but customs put it at just $1.2 billion.

The difference between their figures for exports by foreign firms was even bigger at $2.18 billion.

And, of course, the monthly breakdowns too differ.

Similarly, the statistics office reported that 44 provinces and cities had licensed new FDI projects in the first half, with the northern province of Thai Nguyen topping with $2.14 billion worth investment, while the Foreign Investment Agency under the Ministry of Planning and Investment put it as 46 and said the central province of Thanh Hoa topped. 

Dr. Vu Quang Viet, formerly of the United Nations Statistics Division, said there are fundamental problems with the way figures are compiled by Vietnamese agencies.

They include loans and sometimes even the value of lands provided to foreign investors when calculating FDI, he said.

Not only do Vietnamese agencies refuse to follow international norms while compiling statistics but are also mendacious, he claimed.

At a legislative session in May, Nguyen Van Hien, representing the southern province of Ba RiaVung Tau, also expressed the fear that statistics are falsified to make the economy look better.

Do Thuc, head of the statistics office, told Thanh Nien that there are divergent figures because of "problems" in compilation techniques, adding they would have to be addressed soon.

He also expressed unhappiness about other agencies compiling and putting out national figures since his is the only one authorized to do so.

Going wrong 

Le Dang Doanh, former chief of the Central Institute for Economic Management, said it is "very difficult" to verify Vietnamese statistics, adding many of them like the unemployment rate are baseless.

At the May house session, many lawmakers questioned the accuracy of the unemployment figures compiled by the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs, saying it was absurd that the unemployment rate could decline to 2 percent even as 50,000 businesses closed down last year.

At a National Assembly session last year Tran Du Lich, a lawmaker from Ho Chi Minh City, raised similar doubts saying it was "unimaginable" that while many businesses went bankrupt and closed, more than 1.5 million new jobs were created.

If businesses are provided incorrect figures, they would end up making wrong analyses and "paying the price" for it, while authorities would issue impractical policies, the consequences of which would be incalculable, Doanh said.

Speaking to the media on the sidelines of the May session, Deputy Prime Minister Vu Van Ninh said the NA needs to consider increasing the national debt ceiling to raise more funds since public debt-to-GDP is still at a safe level.

According to the Ministry of Finance, it was 55.4 percent last year and within the safety limit of 60 percent prescribed by international organizations like the World Bank. The government has a threshold of 65 percent.

But the National Institute for Finance and the NA Economic Commission said the ratio is 95 percent if Vietnam follows international norms and also includes state firms' debts not guaranteed by the government.

Ninh's proposal came amid a debate over whether the debt-to-GDP ratio has breached the safety limit.

Dr. Hoang Tho Xuan of the Vietnam Institute for Trade said the consequence of confusing figures is that people would not trust them.

It would be dangerous if people lose their trust in government statistics, he warned.

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