Have You Met FRED?
This 12-minute podcast was released Jan. 24, 2018.
Meet FRED (Federal Reserve Economic Data) from the St. Louis Fed. Economists, journalists, teachers, students and even your neighbors are using this free database to access financial and economic data from around the corner and around the world. “FRED Heads” Keith Taylor and Yvetta Fortova of the data desk at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis make the introduction. Popular in FRED are national data on the unemployment rate, consumer price index and gross domestic product, as well as local data on commute times, crime statistics, household income and more. FRED has all the data you need to understand the economy.
Maria Hasenstab: Hi. I’m Maria Hasenstab of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. I’m here with Keith Taylor, the head of the St. Louis Fed’s Research Data Desk, and Yvetta Fortova, a senior specialist on the St. Louis Fed’s Data Desk. Hi, Keith. Hi, Yvetta.
Yvetta Fortova: Hello.
Keith Taylor: Hello.
Maria Hasenstab: Today we’re going to talk about FRED. Keith, who is FRED? Or rather, what is FRED?
Keith Taylor: So FRED is a website that aggregates economic and socioeconomic data. It stands for Federal Reserve Economic Data. And we pull data from dozens of sources around the world and give users a set of tools to understand that data and use it. Not only is it on the web, but we also have an iPhone app. And you can find it at FRED.StLouisFed.org.
Just to take a step back, if you were to visit FRED, you could pull up something like the unemployment rate for the United States, and you could look at a graph that would show for the last 50 or so years how the unemployment rate has gone up and gone down throughout that time.
In addition, you can download the data that you would see in that graph. You can modify that graph, change the time range, add other datasets to it to see how they compare. And you can also export that graph that you created to your favorite image software, so you can post it on the web or add it to a presentation.
Maria Hasenstab: Can anyone use FRED? Do you need an account?
Yvetta Fortova: So FRED is available freely on the internet. Anybody can access FRED and anybody can use the data and create their customized graphs. For those users who really like FRED and like to come back to it, we also offer free account, which take and utilize to save their favorite graphs, sign up for email notifications when data are updated, create dashboards, build data lists, and provide other features like saving heat maps.
Maria Hasenstab: There’s a lot of economic research coming out of the St. Louis Fed. Is that the data that powers FRED?
Keith Taylor: No. FRED is a data aggregator. So we’re pulling data from all of these different sources, around 85 right now. So we have data from places like the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the International Monetary Fund. So FRED has all this data in one place, making it a one-stop shop. And, as I alluded to, FRED doesn’t just include data for the United States. It also has international data from places like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
And those series span the gamut from per capita GDP to net migration between countries. And we also have local data at the metro level, the county level, and the state level. And that data, you know, consists of things like the unemployment rate, disconnected youth, subprime mortgage index, you know, and a variety of other indicators.
Maria Hasenstab: So you mentioned a couple of data series. Tell me, what is a data series, and maybe what’s one of the most popular data series in FRED?
Yvetta Fortova: Well, data series is really a time series, so it’s a continuous plot of observations over a set period of time. So, for example, unemployment rate is a monthly series. So every month you’re going to see a value produced, and then you can see on the FRED graph changes over those months across all available time.
So, far and away, our most popular data series is Consumer Price Index, which is provided by U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and it’s a measure that’s used to show inflation. One of our other popular data series is Gross Domestic Product. That’s a measure of goods and services produced in an economy in a given period, and that one comes from Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Maria Hasenstab: And is everything inside FRED economic data?
Yvetta Fortova: No, not everything in FRED is economic data. We’ve really expanded to include socioeconomic data, such as commute time, subprime credit index, crime statistics, educational attainment. So we are trying to expand our breadth to attract more users.
Maria Hasenstab: When I was first learning about FRED, I wasn’t sure where to start, so I went to FRED.stlouisfed.org, and in the search bar at the top I typed in the word potato. And it brought up a couple dozen series about potatoes. I found some interesting series about the prices of potatoes and even started to look at when the prices of potatoes went up and wondered if that coincided with poutine becoming more popular at trendy restaurants. What’s one of the coolest things that you’ve found in FRED?
Keith Taylor: So there’s a lot of great series. There’s actually hundreds of thousands of series in FRED. And a couple of my favorites that I’ve just stumbled across lately are new orders for sinks and new orders for toilets in the time in the U.S. history when we were moving from outhouses to indoor plumbing.
And if you graph these two series together, you see a very direct relationship. Every time someone bought a sink, they bought a toilet. And this series was collected by the national Bureau of Economic Research to do a research project that probably looked at some sort of similar phenomenon as our society was changing to indoor plumbing.
Maria Hasenstab: And FRED is more than just a graphing and charting tool, correct?
Yvetta Fortova: Yes. Our graphs are really an application that allows users to build customized graphs, compare two or more time series together, export the graphs, save the image, and share the image of the graph. So it really gives a flexibility to our users on what are their needs. We also have two sibling sites, ALFRED and GeoFRED. ALFRED is our archival FRED. So, over time, our data are subject to revisions, and it’s because, as more information becomes available, the data becomes more and more accurate.
So we are trying to capture these updates, and we store these vintages in ALFRED. Additionally, we also have GeoFRED, which is our site that allows users to map data. And it creates heat maps on cross-sectional data. And, again, we have about—besides U.S. level data, we also have data for MSAs, county levels, selected U.S. regions, and international data, so users have various availabilities within GeoFRED to customize the heat maps and view the data.
Maria Hasenstab: Tell me what someone might look up in GeoFRED.
Yvetta Fortova: So one of the interesting maps can be the commute time. You can really see the regions in the U.S. where people spend a lot of time getting to work, as compared to places where people get to work in no time. That affects all of us, right?
Maria Hasenstab: Yes, it does.
So who uses FRED, and what are they using it for?
Keith Taylor: So we’ve got quite a few distinct audiences. You know, historically, economic researchers have been using FRED data to expand the state of the art of economic research. We also have a number of teachers and students who are using it to have a better understanding of the economy. We’ve also seen an uptick in businesses using it, and they use a lot of our financial and banking data to do things like make forecasts in their sector of the economy or to better understand the markets that maybe they want to expand into.
And, finally, we’ve got journalists who are using it to help tell stories about the economy and society. The other surprising group that I have found is just, you know, the everyday people. You know, your neighbor down the street might be using FRED to get a better understanding of economics and society, you know, take a look at things like mortgage rates if they’re planning to buy a house or crime statistics, population statistics, educational attainment within the counties that they live, and other indicators such as those.
Maria Hasenstab: So how many people are using FRED every day, every year?
Keith Taylor: So we have about—you know, more than 30,000 people use FRED every day. Andwe have—millions of people are coming to the site each year.
Maria Hasenstab: That’s a lot of people checking out the data in FRED.
Keith Taylor: FRED’s awesome.
Maria Hasenstab: You mentioned students are using FRED. Tell me how.
Keith Taylor: So students use it in a couple of ways. The most direct way is that teachers use FRED graphs or FRED data in lectures, or they assign students to analyze that data and tell a story about the economy. The other way is through our website called econlowdown.org. And that website has videos and podcasts and interactive activities that teach economic and personal finance topics. And some of those interactive activities also include building FRED graphs and analyzing the graphs that the students build.
Maria Hasenstab: What about people who are just really enthusiastic about the economy?
Keith Taylor: We have a lot of really passionate users. And those users are called FRED heads, and they really let us know how we can make FRED better. One of the things that we’ve also added is something called FREDcast that allows people to play a game, kind of like Fantasy Football, where they forecast Consumer Price Index, inflation rate, Gross Domestic Product, the unemployment rate, and the change in nonfarm payrolls.
Maria Hasenstab: A forecasting game? Can you tell me a little bit more about it?
Yvetta Fortova: Sure. So you can create an account in FRED and join the FREDcast league, public league, anytime you want. Additionally, you can create your own league or join someone else’s private league and keep forecasting every month and then get ranked on how well your forecasts are turning out with relations to other players.
Maria Hasenstab: Tell me a little bit about the history of FRED. When was it created?
Keith Taylor: So FRED’s a little over 25 years old, so it’s a millennial. And it started as an electronic bulletin board that users could actually use a modem and dial into the St. Louis Fed to download data. Once the internet came along, we jumped over and developed FRED as you see it today.
In some ways, FRED can actually trace its roots back to the 1960s when a research director at the St. Louis Fed recognized the need to get the data that policymakers were using to make decisions into the hands of everyone, and he launched a publication called the U.S. Financial Data. And that was sent out weekly to tens of thousands of subscribers. And we’ve just naturally developed providing data to the public from there.
Maria Hasenstab: And what’s the future of FRED look like?
Yvetta Fortova: So FRED is greedy. We like data, and in the future, we are planning to expand with more data. We believe our U.S. macroeconomic data is pretty much covered, so we are shifting our focus a little bit to obtain more international and regional data. But I’m not going to spoil the surprise, so if anybody’s interested, we also have a FRED newsletter that users can sign up for, and any new data will be revealed there.
Maria Hasenstab: I heard there’s a blog about FRED.
Keith Taylor: Yes, we have a blog called the FRED Blog, and it’s published twice a week. And it includes a graph and some economic analysis of that graph. And, also, it explains how that graph was built. So, in a relatively short blog post, you get a better understanding in the economy and learn how to use FRED.
Maria Hasenstab: Final thoughts about FRED?
Keith Taylor: Well, in addition to the website, we also have an app. And so I would encourage you to check that out on the app store and come see us at FRED.StLouisFed.org.
Maria Hasenstab: Thanks, guys.
Yvetta Fortova: Thank you.
Keith Taylor: Thanks.