Economic Indicators

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 20th, 2013

Economics 101

To Better Understand the Economy we should Study the Economic Indicators Investors Study

If you’ve lost your job you have a pretty good idea about the state of the economy.  It’s bad.  An unemployed person is like a soldier in the trench.  He or she doesn’t need to examine any data to understand what’s happening in the economy.  They know firsthand how bad things are.  But generals far behind the lines don’t have that up close and personal economic experience.  So they have to examine data to understand what’s going on.  Just as government officials, investors and economic prognosticators have to examine data.  Giving them an understanding of the state of the economy.  So they can know what the unemployed know.  The economy sucks.

Government officials want positive economic data so they can say their policies are working.  Whether they are or not.  In fact, they will parse the data to serve them politically.  When necessary.  Such as during the run-up to an election.  So their reports on the economy are not always, how should we say, full of truthiness.  For they can take some bad economic data and put a positive spin on it.  Completely changing the meaning of the data.  The unemployed won’t believe the rosy picture they’re painting.  But those in the trenches may.  And those in the rear with the gear.  After all, they have jobs.  So things don’t really seem that bad to them.

No, for a better picture of the economy you should listen to the people with skin in the game.  Those who are making bets on the economy.  Investors.  And business owners.  Who are risking their money.  And if we look at what they look at we can get a better understanding of the economy.  See what bothers them.  What pleases them.  And what excites them.  So what do they look at?  Economic data we call economic indicators.  Because they indicate the health of the economy.  And give an idea of what the future holds.  There are a lot of economic indicators.  The government compiles most of them.  They each give a little piece of the economic puzzle.  And when you put them together you see the bigger picture.

With a Rise in Housing Starts a Rise in Durable Goods should Follow Creating a lot of New Jobs

As far as economic indicators go retail sales is a big one.  Because consumer spending is the vast majority of economic activity in the new Keynesian economy.  (John Maynard Keynes changed the way governments intervene in the private sector economy in the early 20th century.)  Keynesians believe consumer spending is everything.  Which is why governments everywhere inflate their money supplies.  To keep their interest rates artificially low.  To encourage people to borrow money.  And spend.  When they do retail sales increase.  Signaling a healthy economy.  When they fall it may mean a recession is coming.  Of course, if retail spending rises more than expected investors get nervous.  Because it could mean inflation is coming.  Which the government will try to prevent by raising interest rates.  Thus cooling the economy.  And hopefully sending it into a soft landing.  But more often than not they send it into recession.

Another economic indicator is housing starts.  A lot of economic activity comes from building houses.  Building them generates a lot.  And furnishing them generates even more.  So governments are always trying to do everything within their power to encourage new housing.  They keep interest rates artificially low.  Encouraging people to get mortgages.  And they’ve pressured lenders to lower their lending standards.  To get more people with bad credit (or no credit) into houses.  Which led to subprime lending.  The subprime mortgage crisis.  And the Great Recession.  So more housing starts can be good.  But too many housing starts can be bad.  Generally, though, if they are increasing it’s a sign of an improving economy.

Before Keynesian economics the prevailing school of economic thought was classical economics.  Which we used to make America the world’s number one economic power.  Unlike Keynesians in the classical school we looked higher in the stages of productions.  Where real economic activity took place.  Raw material extraction.  Industrial processing.  Manufacturing.  And wholesaling.  An enormous amount of activity before you reach the consumer level.  All of these higher order economic activities fed into the making of durable goods.  Those things we bought to fill those new houses.  Which is why we like rising housing starts.  Because a rise in durable goods should follow.  And when we’re producing more durable goods we’re employing more people.  Making the durable goods economic indicator a very useful one.

One should Always be Skeptical when the Government says their Policies are Improving the Economy

The Producer Price Index (PPI) tells us how the prices are moving above the consumer level.  So if the PPI is rising it tells us the costs to produce consumer goods are rising.  And these higher costs will flow down the stages of production to the consumer level.  Causing a rise in consumer prices.  So the PPI forecasts what will happen to the CPI.  The consumer price index.  When it rises it means inflation is entering the picture.  Which the government will try to prevent by raising interest rates.  To cool the economy down.  And lower the prices at both the consumer and producer level.  Again, trying to send the economy into a soft landing.  But usually sending it into recession.  Which is why investors pay close attention to the PPI.  So they can get an idea of what will happen to the CPI.  So they can buy and sell (stocks and/or bonds) accordingly.

The rest of us can get an idea of what these investors think about the economy by following the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA).  Which is the weighted ‘average’ of 30 stocks.  (We calculate it by dividing the sum of the 30 stock prices by a divisor that factors in all stock splits and changes of companies in the Dow 30).  As a company does well in a growing economy its stock price grows.  And if investors like what they see in other economic indicators they bid up the stock price even further.  So a rising DJIA indicates that investors believe the economy is doing well.  And will probably even improve.  But sometimes investors have a little irrational exuberance.  Such as during the dot-com bubble in the Nineties.  Where they poured money into any company that had anything to do with the Internet.  Making a huge bet that they found the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.  Of course, when that blind hope faded and reality set in those inflated stock prices came crashing down to reality.  Causing a long and painful recession in the early 2000s.  So even investors don’t always get it right.

When the dot-com bubble burst it threw a lot of people out of a job.  Increasing the unemployment rate.  Another big economic indicator.  But one that can be massaged by the government.  For they only count people out of a full-time job who are looking for full-time work.  The official unemployment rate (what we call the U-3 rate) doesn’t count people who gave up looking for work.  Or people who took a couple of part-time jobs to make ends meet.  A more accurate unemployment rate is the U-6 rate that counts these people.  For while the official unemployment rate fell below 8% during the run-up to the 2012 election the U-6 rate was showing a much poorer economic picture.  And the labor force participation rate showed an even poorer economic picture.  The labor force participation rate shows the percentage of people who could be working who were actually working.  So the lower this is the worse the economy.  The higher it is the better the economy.  So while the president highlighted the fall of the U-3 rate below 8% as a sign of an improving economy the labor force participation rate showed it was the worst economy since the Seventies.  Something the unemployed could easily understand.  But those who had a job believed the less than honest U-3 economic indicator.  Believed the president was making the economy better.  When, in fact, he had made it worse.  Which is why one should always be skeptical when the government says their policies are improving the economy.  For they are more concerned about winning the next election than the people toiling away in the trenches.

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