William Sullivan, Dean Witter Securities Inc.'s chief money-market economist, was shocked to learn Thursday afternoon that home resales had set a record in August.
Resales were believed to have slowed in August, but the data indicated an annual rate of 4.32 million.
But it wasn't the numbers that were a surprise to Mr. Sullivan; it was how and when he got the news. "I found out at 1:24 in the afternoon. It was posted on Dow Jones Telerate," he said Friday.
Like others on Wall Street, he had expected the closely watched data to be released Friday at 10 a.m. at the Washington headquarters of the National Association of Realtors.
As it happened, an NAR staff member inadvertently announced the data a day early through a taped message on the trade group's toll-free phone line. The news was picked up by some in the market and then posted on the wires.
The Realtors didn't learn of the snafu until lunchtime, when a reporter called, spokeswoman Trish Morris said.
The glitch highlights the growing role that industry groups and for- profit survey firms play in supplying sensitive economic data. But unlike the government, which follows a rigid protocol in releasing market- sensitive information, the private groups have looser controls.
"More and more information that impacts day-to-day trading in the bond market is coming out of nongovernment agencies," said Mr. Sullivan of Dean Witter.
When it's unevenly distributed, "it's unfair," because it gives investors who get the information first an edge over others, he said. On Thursday, the home resale data was just one factor in a falling bond market. Strong durable goods orders in August also ignited inflation fears and caused a selloff.
That made the mix-up over NAR's data less important, Mr. Sullivan said. But, he added, "there are going to be times when the (nongovernment) data will be definitive."
David Lereah, chief economist at the Mortgage Bankers Association, said that he sympathized with the Realtors.
His trade group puts out a weekly index that gauges the strength of mortgage applications. The index is especially useful when rates are low, as a measure of refinance activity and rising prepayment speeds on mortgage-backed securities.
"When you're not the government, you can't guard these things like the employment report," Mr. Lereah said. That report is released by the Department of Labor to wire reporters in a locked room who simultaneously transmit their stories.
The MBA faxes its weekly index to subscribers, who number in the hundreds.
"Every now and then our fax system breaks down," Mr. Lereah said, "so someone will be harmed by it."