The almost chronic issue of dodgy economic data came to the fore this week, with the shocking revelation that discrepancies between the numbers maintained by the Export Promotion Bureau and Bangladesh Bank would have to be resolved through a whopping $14 billion write-down in the export figure for the first 10 months of the 2023-24 fiscal. The number represents a substantive chunk of the country's exports, swallowing almost 30 percent of the previous amount touted by the EPB.

Although the discrepancy on export figures between the EPB and central bank has almost always been a feature of the country's national accounts, it is only in the last two years that it has started raising alarm among revenue officials, after burgeoning beyond $10 billion. The previous, 2022-23 fiscal's final export figure had to be dialled back by $12 billion. Although that was meant to have cleansed the books, earlier this year Bangladesh Bank released data indicating the problem still plagued the system, and instead of getting better it was getting worse. The $14 billion adjustment that was needed for just 10 months' figures would seem to confirm that.

It leaves the set of economic data policymakers usually work with looking much less robust, as exports have careened from the 'slow growth' lane, at just under 4 percent, all the way to a contraction of 7 percent, year-on-year in the first 10 months of the fiscal.

Economists have been flagging the issue, which comes down to a totally procedural flaw in terms of how the data is collected by different agencies, for a number of years. It stems from the EPB's dependence on the Customs Department, a wing of the National Board of Revenue, for the numbers it publishes and distributes among stakeholders. The agency compiles the data received from Customs offices around the country, with the process coordinated by a committee comprising representatives from the EPB, NBR, Bangladesh Bank and other agencies.

Customs data however remains notoriously unreliable, with double or even triple counting (when the same data gets recorded more than once) said to be rife. The inability to solve the problem despite identifying its source is a failure of leadership, and surely the EPB must now take up the initiative to set up its own agency to produce the data it so desperately needs, if it is to galvanise the lucrative forex-earning sector. Officials insisted the $14 billion wipe-off does not represent a loss or depletion of wealth for the government or the people of the country. Yet this 'correction' does no favours for the country's embattled economy, and will cause even greater nervousness over the depleting foreign exchange reserves.

Some experts are of the opinion that differences between the estimates presented by NBR, EPB and the central bank can't be bridged, as long as EPB accepts the 'freight on board' (FoB) statistics from Customs as export figures. Bangladesh Bank enters the frame when export earnings reach Bangladeshi banks. Different returns policies between the agencies, specifically the EPB and Customs, have been left unreconciled. The longer this arrangement now chugs on, the worse it is likely to get in the current economic climate.

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