BAD NUMBERS TAINTED SPIMACHINERY STATS

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The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s decision not to release publicly statistics of U.S. shipments of machinery this year is somewhat understandable. The association says the data from the U.S. Customs Service is so flawed that SPI can't use it with confidence in tracking plastics industry machinery shipments.

SPI, which previously has expressed concern about the accuracy of the government's import data, historically reported the Customs Service numbers with those the association collects annually on a voluntary basis from manufacturers to produce an industrywide view of equipment shipments.

The organization understandably doesn't want to be in the position of disseminating misleading information, which only compounds the government's problem record keeping. Curiously, however, SPI stopped including government information beginning with its annual report in 1993, opting to rely on its own data, the collection of which has improved, particularly from Japanese sources. Thus, the retreat from releasing the data is unfortunate.

The Customs Service acknowledges that import numbers for injection presses have been inflated. Apparently, everything from automotive parts to aluminum ingots has been classified as injection molding machines on import entry forms. The government also says some companies repeatedly have ``misclassified'' other items under the injection press category.

This is not a problem in Japan and Germany because of the close working relationship between government and industry.

There may be nothing sinister about the U.S. misclassifications, but logic suggests more is involved here than corporate or bureaucratic ineptitude. The statistics are read with interest by security analysts, the Central Intelligence Agency and by Department of Commerce officials who recommend trade policies to the White House. The economic and strategic political incentives to fudge numbers clearly are significant.

For similar reasons, a few major plastics machinery makers, such as Nissei Plastic Industrial Co. Ltd. of Japan, decline to participate in reporting their data to SPI. The failure of these major international players to participate means that the statistics SPI provides its members should always involve a warning footnote.

How about: ``None of us really understands what's going on with all of these numbers.''