Understanding Economic Indicators
The markets are unpredictable -- right? Well, taken as a whole, yes. The market is the collective action of millions of individual and institutional investors. But with a little research, it's not too hard to figure out what's going to influence investors on a given day. That's because, believe it or not, major market-moving events are actually scheduled months in advance.
Major news events
Breaking business news, such as a large corporate merger, sometimes will move a sector and occasionally it will propel the overall market. But dramatic non-financial news events can have an effect -- for good or for ill -- on trading. Rarely, such as in the cases of the Kennedy assassination and the 9/11 attacks, the exchange has even suspended trading to avoid a rash of emotional selling. Natural disasters, Mideast political unrest, weapons tests, all can induce panic, and panic always moves the market.
Panic is one of the psychological forces that moves the market. Another is when the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the most widely quoted market barometer, reaches a numerical milestone. The numbers -- which are wholly arbitrary -- have a large effect on investor mentality. When the Dow crosses from 7800 to 8000, for example, you can bet that it will be the headline in the daily stock story in every newspaper in the country and mentioned on the evening newscasts. This makes investors re-consider stock valuations.
Public companies report their earnings four times a year, once per quarter. These come in waves for a few weeks at a time beginning with Alcoa, which is traditionally the first major company to report. This look inside Corporate America's books is a major market mover: Earnings surprises and companies' future guidance set a tone in the market.
Whenever a Fed Chairman or a Federal Reserve Governor speaks publicly, either before Congress or some other dark-suited audience, the market holds its breath. The market also eagerly awaits interest-rate decisions, the minutes of Federal Reserve meetings and other key economic data from the U.S. central bank, which is the most powerful economic force on the planet. Investors go to extraordinary lengths to attempt to decode the often Baroque diction -- Fedspeak -- of the Fed chairman, parsing his adjectives and analyzing his wardrobe.
Finally, the results of several dozen periodic economic reports can move Wall Street. These range from the major -- such as the total value of all goods and services produced in the country -- to the more minor, like chin-store sales, to the technical, such as the money supply. Some indicators offer a current picture of condition, like unemployment. Others are referred to as leading indicators. These barometers, such as factory orders, are thought to have predictive value to forecasts future conditions.
Understanding what moves the market and being conversant in the most important economic indicators can give investors an edge. In this tutorial, we'll look at a brief explanation of each indicator and discuss what it means -- and how you can make money.
Gross Domestic Product
Gross means "total." Domestic means "of a country." Product in this case refers to anything of value that can be transferred for cash, typically as goods or services. So -- deep breath -- the gross domestic product is simply a fancy way of saying "the combined value of everything Americans produced within the borders of the U.S. of A."
If you venture beyond the basic definition, it's easy to find yourself bogged down in the intricacies of the dismal science. To wit:
Equations like these are exactly why no one wants to read about economic indicators. They're lethally boring and not all that helpful.
Here's what you need to know:
"Growth" in economic news is the rate at which GDP gets bigger. Economies, for the most part, expand. Wealth builds. We humans consume an ever-greater amount of stuff. Plus we replace things that wear out. We create new and better products, dream up new services and find new markets for everything. Before you know it, indigenous peoples who heretofore beat handmade drums are jamming out to an iPod with Bose headphones. Progress? Perhaps. But the flow of goods definitely bodes well for the global economy.
The key to growth is sustainability. We want the economy to expand, just not too quickly. If the economy is rolling along a little too fast, the Federal Reserve will step in and raise interest rates to make sure that healthy growth doesn't turn into unhealthy inflation. Since 1978, the average annual rate of growth in these United States has been about 3.1%.
January - July 1980
July - November 1982
July 1990 - March 1991
March - November 2001
December 2007 - present
? The country experienced 37 quarters of economic expansion from 1991 to 2000, the longest period of growth in our nation's history.
? GDP data is released quarterly by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, a dividison of the U.S. Department of Commerce. The news releases are a tough slog and use some jargon, but if you can wade through the terminology then you'll generally find out exactly what caused the expansion or contraction in the national accounts.
You can find the current release and a vast trove of economic stats at bea.gov.
? Because collecting and analyzing all of the data from the largest economy in the world is such a monumental undertaking, the numbers must be revised from time to time. The number-crunchers at Commerce have four chances to get it right.
The first is the "advance estimate." This is, as the name implies, the best guess. It's released the in the month following the last month of each quarter. In other words, first-quarter results are released in April, and so forth. The next release, issued in the second month following the just ended quarter, is the "preliminary estimate." The "revised estimate will follow in the third month, and the numbers will be finalized -- the "benchmark revision" in the following July.
GDP, then, can turn out to be better or worse than initially thought, so it's a good idea to keep up on revisions.
? Lastly, for comparison's sake, the top ten economies by nominal GDP in the (as of 2008) world are (In Trillions of USD):
U.S.A. $14.3 Great Britain $2.8
Japan $4.8 Italy $2.3
China $4.2 Spain $1.6
Germany $3.8 Brazil $1.6
France $2.9 Canada $1.5
The Employment Picture
Growth provides investors with the whole picture. The first ripple effect from an economic expansion or contraction, however, typically shows up in the nation's employment situation.
Jobs are an important indicator for the pretty obv that people who work spend money. Not only do they receive compensation for their efforts, but their work adds to the amount of goods and services that are produced. What's more, an economy with plenty of good-paying jobs is an oasis of confidence. People feel secure, they're willing to spend money and make long-term purchases like cars and homes. All in all, job-related news, which covers a labor force of some 155 million, is vitally important and can have an immediate effect on the market.
There are several reports to understand and watch for:
This weekly report from the Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration shows the number of people in the United States who have filed their first claim for unemployment insurance benefits.
This first-time claims number can move dramatically from week to week and is best measured against its six-month moving average and to analysts' expectations. As a rule, the fewer people filing claims, the happier Wall Street is.
The Unemployment Rate
This report shows the percentage of the workforce that is unable to find work. It's determined by a household survey and published monthly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average unemployment rate in the United States from 1999 through 2009 is 5.3%.
"Full employment" is not necessarily 100% unemployment, as there will always be some turnover as people change jobs. Full employment is when the number of job vacancies equals the number of job seekers.
ADP National Employment Report
Automatic Data Processing, or ADP, is the nation's leading payroll processor. No matter who you work for, unless it's yourself or Uncle Sam, there's a good chance (1 in 6) that your payroll check was processed by ADP. As a result of its dominance in the payroll industry, the company is in a unique position to provide employment data. ADP's monthly report is based on anonymous payroll data from 400,000 of its 500,000 clients, with each major industrial classification represented.
Challenger Gray & Christmas is an outplacement consultancy that helps people who've lost their jobs find a new one. The firm publishes a number of reports. Many of which track jobs cuts.
Monster Employment Index
Years ago, when people still read newspapers, Wall Street kept an eye on the "Help Wanted Index," which has that peculiar Wall Street tendency to be exactly what it sounds like. The Help Wanted Index literally counted help wanted ads in the paper, which fed an index. Now -- in early years of the post-newsprint era -- the idea has moved to the Web. The old Help Wanted Index has become the Monster Employment Index. Same song, second verse: The Monster number simply tracks online ads.
Jobs are the last part of the economy to rebound and can indeed continue to wane even after the economy has rebounded. Jobs are long-term arrangements that affect the employer's bottom line every week, and business owners loathe to make that payroll commitment unless they're sure they can cover the expense. Though Wall Street usually cheers, most companies don't relish the idea of layoffs -- they may reduce overhead, but they also damage employee morale, affect output and make recruitment of the best talent more difficult.
Consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of the all economic activity, and keeping track of what people are buying is a good way to keep tabs on the nation's financial well-being. In addition to keeping an eye on large retailers like Wal-Mart, investors have a wide array of retail spending reports to digest.
This is one indicator the government doesn't track directly (Uncle Sam does keep an eye on the price of cars and on the number of loans consumers have taken out to buy them). The automakers themselves report sales on the first of the month. The news accounts of these reports offer insight into several areas of the economy, from spending habits to consumer trends to the condition of the credit market.
The bad news: Automobile sales are not reported in terms of dollars but by the number of units sold. The next question, thus, has to be not how many cars were sold but how many profitable cars were sold.
If GM or Ford sells a lot of low-margin small cars instead of a lot of high-margin light trucks and SUVs, then the effect on the bottom line of the income statement for the quarter might be less pleasant. That's why using car sales to pick stocks is a cagey proposition. The best way to use the aggregate data is as an indicator of consumer confidence and economic growth.
The good news: Auto sales are one of the first things to pop in a recovery. After putting off a vehicle purchase, consumers pine for this cornerstone of the American experience, a new car. When sales jump up, you can bet the economy is starting to turn around.
ICSC Goldman Sachs Retail Chain Store Index
Just what we needed in the financial arena -- another acronym. This one stands for the "International Council of Shopping Centers," which has partnered with the investment bank Goldman Sachs to offer a read on sales at chain stores. The weekly index is seasonally adjusted and excludes food and cars.
You may be asking why a shopping center trade group would track same-store sales when it could track vacancy rates or CAP rates or some other useful real estate metric. But shopping center owners don't just get a rent check from their tenants, they get a percentage of sales.
Because the index is weekly, it's most useful to for spotting trends by looking at its moving average. (A "moving average" collects data for a certain time period, the past six months, say, kicking out the oldest value for the newest one. This smoothes out the data and allows for easier trend-spotting. Wall Street uses the 200-day moving average for stock and index values.)
There are several weekly retail measures, and several other reports that detail orders for goods. One of these notable reports comes from the Institute for Supply Management (ISM), which publishes a monthly manufacturing report.
But not every thing we Americans buy comes in a box or a bag. Much of what we purchase are services. In fact, services account for 79.2% of the national economy (the rest is 19.2% industrial and 1.2% agriculture). The report is based on surveys sent to 370 executives in more than 60 service industries.
You've probably heard an older friend or family member talk about how much things cost or how little they used to earn. It's all relative, if you'll forgive the pun. The value of the dollar changes over time. This inflation (which refers to the increased cost of things and not the fall in the purchasing power of a dollar) is tracked through two reports that the government issues back-to-back once a month. These reports are the Consumer Price Index and the Producer Price Index.
The Consumer Price Index
Of all the economic indicators, the CPI is probably the most relevant to individuals and the most likely to have an impact on one's personal finances. From an investor's point of view, the CPI is usually a yawner of a report
The CPI is a monthly index that tracks the cost of a basket of goods. Each month, government workers call thousands of stores and service providers to check on prices. These fall into one of eight categories:
Food and Beverage Housing
Medical care Recreation
The point of the CPI, as you can see, is to keep track of the things that all of us spend money on. The CPI is used to determine changes in government entitlements like Social Security benefits. The data is published in aggregate but can be broken down by geographic area. An immense collection of data can be perused at bls.gov.
One trick you'll want to listen for with the CPI: It's easy to go shopping for a number. Food and energy, which are included in the index, are volatile, something we've seen recently when oil spike to bnearly $150 a barrel and gas was selling for $4 a gallon. Well, the prices of a lot of things didn't go up that sharply, and to smooth out the inflation data a lot of investors, pundits and journalists focused on "core" CPI that excludes food and energy prices.
The Producer Price Index
The CPI monitors inflation at the personal level by looking at prices. The Producer Price Index, on the other hand, analyzes inflation by watching costs at the wholesale level.
The PPI tracks changes in the price of domestically produced and consumed commodities. The index is made up of prices for both consumer goods and capital equipment, though it doesn't cover the price of any services.
Since both measure inflation, aren't their readings likely to be the same? Not necessarily. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts it this way: "A primary use of the PPI is to deflate revenue streams in order to measure real growth in output. A primary use of the CPI is to adjust income and expenditure streams for changes in the cost of living."
In other words, one index (the PPI) covers how much it costs to make a Big Mac, the other index (the CPI) accounts for the change in the Big Mac's actual retail cost. Those two things don't always move in lockstep. A company could reduce its prices and lower its margin to gain more business or build brand loyalty, just as it could jack up prices when costs were low to earn more money per sale.
Employment Cost and Productivity
It costs money to have workers -- they're there for the money. The Employment Cost Index is part of the National Compensation Survey and offers a quarterly peek into what workers are taking home. The reports separate workers into classes: government, private-industry, union/non-union, etc. Employment costs will, over time, correlate to the trends in the costs of goods and services.
Productivity measures efficiency: It's how well inputs are converted into output. Advances in productivity -- workers doing more -- mean that there are more goods and services in the marketplace, suggesting the potential for economic growth. Both productivity and employment cost are calculated quarterly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Housing and Construction
Housing is big business -- it's where most individual wealth is concentrated. Although I hope that your biggest investment is your retirement plan, for most people it's their houses. There are more than 120 million single-family houses in the U.S., worth some $24 trillion at an average $200,000 price. That's roughly twice the country's GDP -- and you can see how a crisis in the housing market could lead to big trouble. Construction overall is a huge part of the economy, adding up to about a trillion dollars a year, or nearly 8% of the gross domestic product.
There's a ton of data on what's being built and what's being bought:
The Census Bureau and Department of Housing and Urban Development keep monthly track of sales new homes and the number of existing homes. Both reports calculate a median price. Half of the nation's homes are above the median price; half are below it.
The home ownership rate shows how many people own their homes rather than rent. An increase in home ownership is thought of as a good thing -- it means people have the cash for a down payment, the credit to obtain a loan and the wherewithal to keep up with their monthly payments.
Ownership is also thought to be a stabilizing factor: People who own homes tend to take better care of them and have a greater stake in the neighborhoods they live in. About 68% of the country owns their home: When broken down by region, it's highest in the Midwest and lowest in the West. The rate is calculated by the Census Bureau through its Housing Vacancy Survey.
This indicator really doesn’t move the market very much. You'll hear politicians refer to it far more often than economists. But whoever is using the term, make sure you're able to put it in context: Remember, people don't really own their homes until they send in that last house payment. The important factor then is home equity, not home ownership. Is a country with a rising home ownership rate really better off if the aggregate value in home equity falls? No. In that case, people actually own less.
Tracked monthly by the Census Bureau, housing starts is the number of privately owned homes that workers have begun building. It's tracked in an annualized rate and typically measured against the same month in the previous year. The same report also offers data on how many homes have been completed, also at an annualized rate.
Mortgage Applications are tracked by the, believe it or not, the Mortgage Bankers Association. The index includes both purchase requests and refinancings.
People will "refinance" the home they have already bought by obtaining a new loan to pay the old one off. If the new rate is lower, the homeowner will pay less interest and save money. If you borrowed $250,000 at 7.50% on a 30-year note, you'd pay $1,791.03 a month. If you could lower that rate to 5.15%, your payment would drop 24%, or $425.96 a month, to $1,365.07. When rates fall, refinancing requests surge.
The report will generally have information about first-time home buyers. This group can do a lot to move the market because they are far more nimble purchasers, as they don't have a home they need to get rid of before they can make another deal,
The S&P/Case-Shiller Indices measures prices of single-family homes, excluding new ones. The indices are calculated monthly using a three-month moving average and published with a two-month lag on the last Tuesday of each month. The index family includes 20 regions, though the data can zoom down to the MSA or even ZIP-code level.
Not all home loans end well. Some end with legal proceedings known as foreclosure. The word simply means to close the loan before it was to be paid off. The bank basically tosses out the borrower and sells the property, hoping to command a high enough price to pay the balance of the loan. The process takes a lot of money, lawyers and time. Bankers don't like to expend any of these three resources if they can avoid it.
The economy grinds to a halt without a steady supply of petroleum. The United States imports millions of barrels of crude oil from all over the world, which it refines into gasoline and other products. Because of oil's importance to the global economy, the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration keeps track of dozens of petroleum-related matters. The most common is the weekly inventory report.
This report is national in scope and shows how much of each petroleum product is on hand, how much is being made, imported and used. Rising inventories -- all other things being equal -- will lead to lower prices and vice versa in accordance with the law of supply and demand. Granted, the "all other things being equal" doesn't happen very often. Nevertheless, the market pays careful attention to the report, which is released each Wednesday.
When it comes to government economic data, the EIA is the best source out there, and they sure don't pay me to say that. Even so, the site is well organized, exceptionally intuitive and user-friendly. As soon as you think, "What I really need here is …" you can bet that there's a link to what you need somewhere on the page. Much of the data is presented in charts but can be downloaded into Excel. Also, EIA produces "This Week in Petroleum," which is an easy-to-read graphic-heavy look at the state of the oil and gas market. Don't miss it -- or the energy outlook reports found under the "Forecasts" label. The people at EIA -- also track coal, natural gas, electricity, nuclear energy and renewable energy sources.
Corporate and Industry
The business of America is business. That was right before Calvin Collidge said it, and it's been spot on every day since. The American economy is not only the strongest and most resilient in the world, it's also the seat of the lion's share of the world's technological innovation. American businesses set the bar for the rest of the world.
Though the current value of any company can be ascertained by simply looking at its stock price and the economy itself can be gauged with GDP and other indicators, the day-to-day of U.S. business has a few metric of its own that all investors should be aware of.
The first of these measures is a two-fer: Industrial Production and Capacity Utilization.
Industrial Production is measured by a monthly Federal Reserve index. The aggregate index shows how much is produced from factories and mines and utilities. The index is also divided by major market groups. "Final Products" covers consumer goods and business equipment. The index also gives a read on construction and materials.
This indicator is chock full of information. If production of business equipment rises, for example, that likely has predictive value as a gauge of future business activity: If companies are buying goods, they're going to put it to work. A drop in the production of consumer goods, however, can be a negative sign. If companies are making less then they expect consumers to buy less, which could indicate the economy is slowing.
Capacity Utilization is simply a percentage that shows the degree to which the nation's factories, mines and utilities are producing what they are capable of. Think of the speedometer on your car. If you're going 25 mph, you know you can kick things up a notch. If you're going 90, you may be approaching the vehicle's top speed, or, if not, the speed at which it is prudent to drive.
If capacity reaches too high a level, the policy-makers at the Fed could factor that into their interest-rate decisions. One way to slow down capacity utilization is to reduce the money supply. If it's more expensive to borrow, production of everything decreases, and the nation's utilization rate will drop a notch, perhaps to a more sustainable level.
The Fed also publishes its so-called beige book, creatively named for the color of the covers the Central Bank once used. The report, issued eight times a year, is a collection of anecdotal information from each Federal Reserve Bank Branch. You can find the beige books dating to 1970 at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank's web site. The official title of the publication is Sumnary of Commentary on Current Economic Conditions.
If you're going to be meeting with big hitters and want to make sure you're well briefed, this is an excellent publication. The summary takes about five minutes to read and will afford you a good briefing on business conditions. Additional detail is available on each of the Federal Reserve districts: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Richmond, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Dallas and San Francisco. (These are the same banks you will see on one-dollar bills -- "Federal Reserve Note" is printed above "The United States of America" on U.S. currency.)
The market doesn't get too worked up about the beige book, but market pundits and news directors read every word, and the report goes a long way to set the tone in analyst reports, commentary and news accounts.
The bottom line is always the bottom line. If you're new to financial lingo, the bottom line isn't just a figure of speech, it's the last item on an income statement that shows net profit or loss. The Bureau of Economic Analysis, as part of its quarterly report on the country's gross domestic product, tracks the real-dollar profits earned by companies. The number is technical -- profits with inventory valuation and capital consumption adjustments -- but the general direction of the report is what Wall Street cares about. When profits are up, stock values rise. When they fall, investors are likely to get a little jittery.
The report separates out financial companies. For a detailed look at the performance of banks, check out the Federal deposit Insurance Corp.'s Quarterly Banking Profile.
When most of us think of inventories, we think of finished products on a store's shelves. But inventories also include all of the materials companies need to make their products, whether it's steel, plastic, peanuts, aluminum, frozen concentrated orange juice, paper or MSG. It takes a vast array of materials to produce the goods we use. The Census Bureau -- proud motto: Everyone Counts! -- tracks this stuff in its "Manufacturing and Trade Inventories Report."
The monthly release shows overall business inventories, manufacturers inventories, retail stock and wholesalers. The report is expressed in dollars and is published with both seasonally adjusted and non-adjusted data. A "seasonal adjustment" -- a favorite term of economists large and small -- might be made to lessen the impact of major annual production needs like back-to-school or the holiday season, which businesses of all kinds prepare for in advance.
In a downturn, businesses often try to work off excess inventory, so an increase after a period of a decline is often a positive indication for the overall economy.
The Personal Level
So far we've mostly learned about things that affect the overall economy. But every macroeconomy -- the big picture -- has a number of microeconomies -- the little pictures. The individual is the smallest microeconomic unit, and keeping track of how you and your family is doing is of great concern to economists, analysts and investors. Remember, as we noted earlier in the section about retail indicators, consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of the U.S. economy.
The first question to ask is how much people earn. The Bureau of Economic Analysis does this in its monthly report on Personal Income and Outlays. This monitors what people are paid, what they spend and how much they save.
There are two things to keep in mind with this report. First, people can spend more than they earn using savings, credit cards and other types of consumer borrowing. The second thing to keep in mind is a critical distinction the report makes between "personal income" -- how much your paycheck was for -- and discretionary income, the part of your paycheck that's not eaten up by essential things like housing, food, utilities and transportation. Income and discretionary income typically move in the same direction, though not necessarily to the same degree. If personal income rises but discretionary income doesn't keep pace, then people are unable to buy as much of what they want because they are spending more on what they need. As a rule, decreased discretionary income will lead to lower consumer spending, which can affect the overall economy.
This little jewel from the Federal Reserve doesn't sound like it's a Ridley Scott picture, but it's actually a fascinating report. It breaks down every loan in the country by what it is and who holds the note.
The first distinction the report makes is between the two general types of loans -- revolving credit and non-revolving credit. A credit card is a revolving line. You have a $5,000 limit on your Visa card. If you buy a $3,000 HDTV, you'll have $2,000 of credit available until you make a payment. Revolving lines and like revolving doors, they open and shut. Non-revolving lines, however, such as car loans, can only be paid down. When the loan is closed, the bank sends you the title, end of story.
Banks must be prepared to cover the entire open lines of their credit cards and credit lines. When credit gets tight, you may well get a letter saying your credit card limit has been reduced or asking you to consider closing your credit line. Even if you don't plan to spend the money, the bank has to act as though you will.
Consumer credit almost never falls. People are always borrowing more. the Fed releases the data on or about the fifth day of each month.
Lastly, one of the most crucial economic indicators is how people feel. Confidence leads to spending, borrowing and investing, all of which can be very healthy for the economy. Confidecne is measured by two main groups: The Conference Board, a trade group, which publishes the Index of Consumer Confidence. The second measure is the University of Michigan's Consumer Sentiment Index.
Economic indicators are a lot less about the dismal science than they are about the decisions American businesses and consumers are making. The data is easy to access online and usually pretty easy to digest if you can handle slogging through a little jargon.
If you're committed to understanding economic indicators, the time will come when you'll want to use them in your investing. Keep these three things in mind:
Take the long view
The economy is massive and change is slow. Everything is cyclical. Find comparisons, run the averages. Graph the performance of an indicator against GDP growth, the S&P 500, stocks in the given sector and interest rates. Seek every comparison you can find. Think critically. And invest -- always invest.
Don't accept conventional wisdom
If you read a news story that characterizes things as good or bad, stop reading it. The best news accounts won't say the market had a "good" day, they'll say it rose 564.12 points. (That would be a lousy day if you were short). Make sure you bear in mind that every number tells a story about a possible investment, and there are two sides to every trade. One wins and one loses.
Look at the data
The news releases produced by the government may not seem as interesting as a Grisham novel, but they're well done and usually cover all the bases. The economists and analysts who create the reports do a good job of explaining almost everything. Even so, it's a good idea to read the media accounts, the entire news release and to review the raw data, especially if you're going to use the information to make an investment decision.
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