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A Beginner's Guide to Economic Indicators

What are Economic Indicators?

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Q: I'm constantly hearing about economic indicators in the news, but I'm never sure what they're talking about. What are economic indicators and why are they important?

A: An economic indicator is simply any economic statistic, such as the unemployment rate, GDP, or the inflation rate, which indicate how well the economy is doing and how well the economy is going to do in the future. As shown in the article "How Markets Use Information To Set Prices" investors use all the information at their disposal to make decisions. If a set of economic indicators suggest that the economy is going to do better or worse in the future than they had previously expected, they may decide to change their investing strategy.

To understand economic indicators, we must understand the ways in which economic indicators differ. There are three major attributes each economic indicator has:

Three Attributes of Economic Indicators

  1. Relation to the Business Cycle / Economy

    Economic Indicators can have one of three different relationships to the economy:

    1. Procyclic: A procyclic (or procyclical) economic indicator is one that moves in the same direction as the economy. So if the economy is doing well, this number is usually increasing, whereas if we're in a recession this indicator is decreasing. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is an example of a procyclic economic indicator.

    2. Countercyclic: A countercyclic (or countercyclical) economic indicator is one that moves in the opposite direction as the economy. The unemployment rate gets larger as the economy gets worse so it is a countercyclic economic indicator.

    3. Acyclic: An acyclic economic indicator is one that has no relation to the health of the economy and is generally of little use. The number of home runs the Montreal Expos hit in a year generally has no relationship to the health of the economy, so we could say it is an acyclic economic indicator.

  2. Frequency of the Data

    In most countries GDP figures are released quarterly (every three months) while the unemployment rate is released monthly. Some economic indicators, such as the Dow Jones Index, are available immediately and change every minute.

  3. Timing

    Economic Indicators can be leading, lagging, or coincident which indicates the timing of their changes relative to how the economy as a whole changes.

    Three Timing Types of Economic Indicators

    1. Leading: Leading economic indicators are indicators which change before the economy changes. Stock market returns are a leading indicator, as the stock market usually begins to decline before the economy declines and they improve before the economy begins to pull out of a recession. Leading economic indicators are the most important type for investors as they help predict what the economy will be like in the future.

    2. Lagged: A lagged economic indicator is one that does not change direction until a few quarters after the economy does. The unemployment rate is a lagged economic indicator as unemployment tends to increase for 2 or 3 quarters after the economy starts to improve.

    3. Coincident: A coincident economic indicator is one that simply moves at the same time the economy does. The Gross Domestic Product is a coincident indicator.

In the next section we will look at some economic indicators distributed by the U.S. Government.

Be Sure to Continue to Page 2 of A Beginner's Guide to Economic Indicators

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