Leading economic indicators

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Predicting the future is no easy task, especially in uncertain economic times. One of the ways economists, market watchers, and armchair pundits try to ascertain what’s happening and going to happen is by focusing on economic indicators. Economic indicators are metrics that are derived from a variety of data sources such as manufacturing firms, census statistics, government agencies, and more. There are tons of economic indicators out there – virtually anything that can be measured is being measured.

Broadly, there are three categories of economic indicators: leading, or indicators that might foretell what will happen, coincident, or what’s happening now, and lagging, or what happened. Most folks with a vested interest in finance, marketing, business development, or the economy focus on leading indicators.

Here are a few of my favorite leading indicators and what they mean. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

ISM PMI/NMI report: Of companies making stuff, how many have new orders? The ISM numbers are really important because they tell you about what’s happening to companies that make stuff. Physical production of goods isn’t something you can game too far in advance (no one rationally builds up a 3 year inventory these days for most industries), so ISM numbers can tell you what will be hitting shelves and marketplaces in the next 6 months. Click here for an example of the most recent ISM report.


Weekly Jobless Claims: how many new people filed for unemployment insurance each week? While this number doesn’t reflect the broader picture of underemployment or discouraged workers, it’s a good number for indicating churn of jobs and how fast the economy is creating or losing jobs. Bloomberg puts together a nice chart here.

US Initial Jobless Claims SA (INJCJC:IND) Index Performance - Bloomberg

Google Trend Searches: Google Trends shows you what people are searching for. Here are a couple of useful searches that tell you how many people are searching for job-related terms such as laid off or get a job.

Google Trends: get a job, laid off

Baltic Dry Index: One of my perennial favorites, the BDI shows you what it costs to ship something on a cargo ship. Generally speaking, you don’t invest in cargo space unless you have something to ship, so BDI is a reasonably good gauge of shipping demand. Bloomberg again comes out with a great chart. Flip it to 5 year view to see before and after recession.

BALTIC DRY INDEX (BDIY:IND) Index Performance - Bloomberg

For marketers, these sorts of numbers are somewhat useful because they give you an idea of how the economy will strain or boost your prospects’ willingness to buy. If you want to get really innovative, look for economic indicators that are specific to your vertical or niche. For example, let’s say you wanted to create a social media economic indicator of some sort. You’d want to blend in PCE, a basket of company stocks specific to the space (LinkedIn, Renren, Google, etc.), and perhaps even something like the average cost of broadband from the OECD.

Once you have your own set of economic indicators that are reliable, you’ll know what is going to affect your business, your clients, and your revenues in the days and weeks to come, hopefully before any of your competitors. You’ll be more agile because you’ll know what is coming and how to adapt more quickly.

What would you use to predict the fortunes of your vertical’s business cycle? What are your personal leading economic indicators?

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Christopher S. Penn is one of the world’s leading experts on AI in marketing. Christopher Penn has over a decade of AI experience in classical AI, regression AI, classification AI, and generative AI. Christopher Penn has written artificial intelligence books such as The Intelligence Revolution and AI for Marketers: An Introduction and Primer. Christopher Penn is an AI keynote speaker around the world.


One response to “Leading economic indicators”

  1. the BDI has to be the most powerful of all these metrics. Regardless of what is actually being produced, what is ‘shipping’ holds more weight as it is what is being consumed. Not to quote Seth Godin but shipping is everything. Excellent post Chris. I thought on about 10 people in the world knew about BDI. 

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