Is business slowing down?

Is business slowing down? A handful of leading indicators may warrant concern.

A theme I’ve heard repeated in many different business conversations is that business is slowing down. Customers aren’t buying as much. Executives aren’t signing contracts. Sales prospects are stalling in the pipeline. Are there economic indicators which could explain this phenomenon? Or are these just anecdotes without a basis in data?

Three leading economic indicators worth paying attention to are the Baltic Dry Index (BDI), Initial Jobless Claims, and the Producer Price Index (PPI). These leading indicators can hint of troubles to come.

BDI tells us the price of shipping containers. If the price goes up, more companies are competing for shipping space. In turn, that means companies are producing more. As a rule, companies don’t buy shipping space speculatively, only when needed. If the price goes down, companies are shipping less, which also means they’re making less.

Initial Jobless Claims are a consumer leading indicator and a business leading indicator. More people laid off means more companies scaling back jobs.

Finally, PPI tells us how much companies are paying for their raw materials. If prices are going up, companies are making more stuff (and thus competing for commodities needed to make stuff). Conversely, a decrease in PPI means companies are buying less stuff and therefore making less stuff.

Combined, these indicators give a sense of the economy with regard to businesses. If all indicators are moving up, businesses are likely growing. If all indicators are moving down, businesses are uncertain or shrinking.

When we examine these indicators, we look at two lines: resistance and support. These are stock market terms; resistance means the recent top levels of any metric, while support means the recent bottom levels. Technical stock traders use these guidelines to determine whether a given metric’s behavior is anomalous or not.

Let’s take a look at the charts. First, BDI:


Above, we see BDI has fallen through its support level. Already depressed, BDI has gone below support to a 5 year low. Companies are shipping less stuff.

Next, Initial Jobless Claims:


We see Initial Jobless Claims have broken through their resistance level, signifying that the overall 5 year trend may be reversing. Companies might be paring back jobs.

Finally, we look at PPI:


PPI broke through a multiyear support level last year, but has declined below its 5 year support level at the end of 2015.

Any one of these indicators could be due to interfering environmental conditions. All three indicators show business conditions eroding.

Is business slowing down? In a nutshell: yes.

We must prepare accordingly.

Adjust our expectations for marketing’s ability to generate leads.
Expect a decline sales’ ability to close in shorter-than-average sales cycles.
Plan to increase spend on advertising just to maintain current levels of activity.

Tougher economic conditions mean stepping up our game as marketers.

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2016 Economic Conditions Snapshot: Don’t Panic

I shared the dire predictions of the Royal Bank of Scotland for 2016 recently; the TL;DR version was “panic, sell everything, and hide in your bunker“. Is their prediction warranted? Panic isn’t, but caution is.

One of the most important lessons about economics is to do your own work. Download the data, make your own charts, run your own analysis. Don’t rely solely on the words of pundits, especially if they have a vested economic interest of their own.

First, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, 10 year view:


We’re looking like a top, a plateau. 2015 looks like an inflection point. Is a crash coming? Not super soon, but some losses are inevitable.


The same holds true for the S&P 500.


Also true for the NASDAQ. 2015 looks like a top.

Let’s check market volatility, via the CBOE VIX. The VIX measures how volatile the market is; the more volatile, the more unsettled investors feel.


The second half of 2015 was rougher, to be sure. However, volatility still isn’t in Great Recession territory, though it is substantially higher than the past two years.

How is the banking ecosystem? We check 30 and 90 day LIBOR, the London InterBank Offering Rate. The more risk in the economy, the higher LIBOR is. The higher LIBOR is, the less banks trust each other and the more they want to hold onto cash.


30 day LIBOR has ticked upwards noticeably after 4 years of calm conditions. Banks may see some short term risk, enough to consider stockpiling a bit of cash.


In the 90 day view, we see the same uptick. Banks are being more cautious about the first quarter of 2016.

Are either of these a cause for alarm? Not yet. While rates are ticking up, they’re nothing like they were during the previous bubble, shown just before the dark grey regions of the above two charts.

What about mortgages, the source of the previous economic crisis?


30 year fixed rate mortgages remain at very low levels.

How about jobs? The best data source to look at is the alternative measures of underemployment, which takes into account not only people who are looking for work, but people working at less than full capacity (part time when they were full time), plus discouraged workers:


Overall underemployment looks good. The rate continues to steadily decline, though we might be seeing hints of a bottom.

Let’s turn our eyes overseas to the MSCI Emerging Markets index, an aggregated index of the economies of 23 nations:


MSCI has dropped 23% year over year, 32% off its 2015 high. This is noteworthy, indicating downward market pressures in emerging economies.

What about one of my former favorite indicators, the Baltic Dry Index (BDI)? BDI is the going cost of ocean-borne cargo container shipping rates. Unlike other indicators, it’s lagging; you don’t speculatively buy lots of cargo space you don’t need.


BDI remains at crazy lows, indicating that shipping of goods by cargo container continues to be weak.

What about consumer confidence? The OECD assembles some terrific data on this front:

oecd conf.png

Overall consumer confidence around the world and the United States is optimistic; the one big question mark is China. China’s consumer confidence has swung wildly over the last 5 years.

Do businesses feel the same? The OECD’s business confidence index is the place to look:

oecd business confidence.png

Business confidence in the economy has been eroding in the United States, sharply in 2015. Businesses are not as optimistic as consumers.

What about spot gold prices? Gold is where a fair number of investors run in a panic when economic conditions become unsettled.


So far, investors haven’t panicked into gold. In fact, gold is at multi-year lows.

What about black gold, also known as oil? Oil is essentially a tax; the more expensive energy is, the less consumers and businesses have to spend on discretionary items.


Oil has fallen off a cliff in the last year. We know this as consumers because the price at the pump is at $2 a gallon or less in the United States. If you drive a car or incur other oil-related expenses, you know this by the extra cash in your wallet.

Finally, a roundup of agricultural products.


Most agricultural commodities are at multi-year lows except for rice. Low agricultural prices mean lower fuel and food costs, which is good for the consumer, but bad for some producers and farmers.

What does it all mean?

Panic isn’t warranted, but caution is. We see what look like market tops in the stock markets, slightly increased volatility, and the floor falling out from under several major commodities, from food to fuel to gold. It’s a tough time to be a commodity producer, but a generally good time to be a consumer. Businesses feel caution is warranted; the underlying fundamentals around commodities are deflationary.

For the B2C marketer and business, 2016 still appears to be strong for you. Consumers have cash in their pockets, they’re getting jobs, confidence is rising, and commodity prices (and their derivative goods) are low.

For the B2B marketer and business, 2016 is shaping up to be a tough year. When businesses become cautious, they tend to slow down capital expenditures and investments. Whether businesses pare back hiring is yet to be seen.

To sum, don’t panic. It’s not justified. Be cautious. Keep your eyes open.

Most of all, don’t believe the hype – ever. Use the data sources in this post to do your own analysis. Do your own work!

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End of Q3 Economic Check-In for Marketers

Once upon a time, when I worked in financial services, I checked charts and quotes daily. I watched the world’s markets like a hawk, because macroeconomic issues that could impact my work often had leading indicators days, weeks, or months in advance.

Even today, I still check in, though not nearly as frequently because my day to day work doesn’t depend on it. It’s still important to have a general sense of what’s going on in the marketplace – and even better if you know why.

Let’s see where things are, now that we’re at the end of the third quarter of the year. The economic indicators I pay attention to are listed out here.

So how are things? First, let’s look at the broad exchanges, the DJIA…


and S&P:


Broadly, the markets had mostly a good year until recently, with the dislocations in China spreading. If you’ve got overseas exposure to China, you’ll continue to feel it.

We see this in the CBOE VIX:


Any time the VIX goes above 30, it means that confidence is uncertain, things are less stable than markets would like. For the majority of this year, things were predictable. The China shock is what caused the large spike in September. The VIX is what you keep your eye on if you want to gauge market sentiment.

On the lending front, interbank rates are still quite low thanks to the Federal Reserve keeping effective interest rates at zero. We see the 30 day chart:


and the 90 day chart:


We see that these two lending rates are marching in virtually lockstep pacing, and the spread between them is healthy. While there may be unease in the stock markets, the impact to banking and lending has been a flight to quality. It also hasn’t impacted mortgage rates domestically:


Overseas, no surprises here as emerging markets have taken some punishment:


Again, if you have overseas exposure in your business, in your marketing, you’ll want to carefully watch indices like the MSCI Emerging Market index to see how exposed you are. Weakness in the market tends to spread to B2C in a quarter and B2B in two quarters, historically.

We haven’t seen the China shock show up yet in shipping:


As you may recall, BDI, the Baltic Dry Index, is the price to ship a container overseas. It’s expensive to do so; companies don’t speculatively purchase space.

We also haven’t seen China show up in gold prices, which typically spike vigorously when investors are truly spooked:

1 year gold.png

Instead, gold is still relatively cheap at the moment, less than half of what it was during the Great Recession.

Geopolitics are also playing a role in commodities. WTI Crude Oil still remains low:


The reasons why oil is cheap are varied and complex. Some believe that Saudi Arabia is flooding the market to deprive the Islamic State of needed revenue (which comes from oil fields they hold). Some believe that it’s an indirect economic sanction on Russia. Some believe that renewable energy is finally beginning to make a dent in carbon fuel usage. Whatever the reason is, the net effect is cheaper gas at the pump and lower heating costs. If you’re a B2C marketer, this is welcome news because the consumer should have more disposable income not being consumed by energy.

Finally, in looking at corn, wheat, and rice commodities, only the latter is under some pressure:


Which should be no surprise – when one of the largest economies (China) is feeling disruption, its principal commodity should show that as well.

What does it all mean?

So what does all of this mean for us, as marketers and business people? Right now the world is in fairly unsteady shape, except for America. Between conflicts and refugee crises in Europe and Asian contagion, the flight to quality is coming to America – and that isn’t a good thing in the long term.

In the short term, marketers will find more dollars in America, but no country is an island. In rougher times in other markets, use the opportunity to build and grow your audiences. Ad dollars will stretch further and you may be able to negotiate better deals outside America, especially if your business is being bolstered by American profits. Strategically, make the money in America and invest it in weak markets to seize marketing advantage while you can.

Take advantage of relatively good conditions for the American consumer, with lower energy and food prices. The upcoming holiday season has the potential to be a good one. Consumers tend to spend what they have without a ton of foresight or planning, so if they have more money in their pockets on the days they go to the mall, they’ll spend more of it. Leverage hyperlocal advertising in real-time to make the most of this trend!

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