I teach Politics and I've been asked to prepare a course which includes a lot of financial data because it covers recent international financial crises.

I've been trying to use IMF statistics, but I find them rather confusing. For instance, if I want to know a country's deficit, I find three different options:

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And when I look up GDP, I have a bewildering number of options to choose from (I've highlighted the one that makes more sense to me):

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Is there any rule-of-thumb method for a lay person to use these statistics? Alternatively, is there any other source in which the data is comprehensive but simplified?

Thank you so much in advance!

  • $\begingroup$ For the deficit question, “central government” is the equivalent of the U.S. Federal Government, while “general government” includes sub-sovereigns as well. I assume that the “budgetary“ series is what was budgeted, the other is what actually happened. The IMF compiles data from national sources, and the national governments generally have guides on how their statistics are calculated. $\endgroup$ Oct 11, 2020 at 12:30
  • $\begingroup$ Can you clarify what exactly is the purpose you want to use those data? The thing is that there are always for example multiple deficits in a country. Do you care about whole country's deficit? Federal government deficit? State/municipality deficit (this is still country's deficit)? For the GDP I would recommend using the real GDP with expenditure approach - income approach is not widely used but even there answer will depend on exactly what you want to do. In addition please provide link to the data some information cannot be gauged just from name of series $\endgroup$
    – 1muflon1
    Oct 11, 2020 at 12:31
  • $\begingroup$ Also: I can’t tell where these data come from. The IMF World Economic Outlook has a relatively standardized data set (with less series). There is a report and a statistical database, and there might be a guide to the data. $\endgroup$ Oct 11, 2020 at 12:34
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    $\begingroup$ If you only need yearly data, the World Bank data (WDI) is much easier to navigate. The IMF advantage is in higher frequency, i.e. quarterly data. $\endgroup$
    – BB King
    Oct 11, 2020 at 12:55
  • $\begingroup$ @BrianRomanchuk I am using the IMF's International Financial Statistics. As far as I can tell, the World Economic Outlook provides yearly reports, not a searchable database. $\endgroup$ Oct 12, 2020 at 7:54

1 Answer 1


This is a general problem with anyone who comes face to face with official statistics for the first time.

Official statistics of a particular country comes from an institution of that country. However, there is something called the System of National Accounts that contains guidelines on pretty much every aspect of national accounts data. This is maintained by UN, IMF and World Bank, among others. Thanks to this you will find data definitions and compilation methods across countries to be largely consistent.

Rule 1: So if you have to use cross country data make sure that you select comparable datasets, i.e. choosing same variables.

Rule 2: Unless you are doing a deep data data analysis, it is okay to chose the variable which is seems most common. What is most common? The variable that you see easily available for any country.

Rule 3: Just keep in mind the difference between real and nominal variables. In most scenarios, you'd need real variables, especially, if you are doing cross-country comparison.

If you still get confused about what to use, the best way is to just read about the variable on wiki and you'll get some sense. Going into more details than what is easily available on wiki is only going to confuse you further as official statistics get fairly complex as you start peeling the layers.

Finally I'd recommend to give CEIC database a try, if you have access to it (through your institution). It is one of the best place today to find any data related to official statistics (I have seen even the officials from IMF using it).

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you, Dayne. I need to use a resource my students have access to from home, so unfortunately CEIC is not an option. $\endgroup$ Oct 12, 2020 at 8:07
  • $\begingroup$ fred.stlouisfed.org/series/FYFSD. This is annual data from the FRED database on the US national deficit. You can put this in terms of deficit as a percent of Real GDP (or nominal GDP if you prefer) if you download the equivalent data base from FRED.fred.stlouisfed.org/series/GDPCA. Orhttps://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/GDPA $\endgroup$
    – EB3112
    Nov 10, 2020 at 19:24

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