Leading economic indicators

Average workweek of production workers in manufacturing. Because businesses often adjust the work hours of existing employees before making new hires or laying off workers, average weekly hours is a leading indicator of employment changes. A longer workweek indicates that firms are asking their employees to work long hours because they are experiencing strong demand for their products; thus, it indicates that firms are likely to increase hiring and production in the future. A shorter workweek indicates weak demand, suggesting that firms are more likely to lay off workers and cut back production.

Average initial weekly claims for unemployment insurance. The number of people making new claims on the unemployment-insurance system is one of the most quickly available indicators of conditions in the labor market. This series is inverted in computing the index of leading indicators, so that an increase in the series lowers the index. An increase in the number of people making new claims for unemployment insurance indicates that firms are laying off workers and cutting back production, which will soon show up in data on employment and production.

New orders for consumer goods and materials, adjusted for inflation. This is a very direct measure of the demand that firms are experiencing. Because an increase in orders depletes a firm’s inventories, this statistic typically predicts subsequent increases in production and employment.

New orders for nondefense capital goods. This series is the counterpart to the previous one, but for investment goods rather than consumer goods.

Index of supplier deliveries. This variable, sometimes called vendor performance, is a measure of the number of companies receiving slower deliveries from suppliers. Vendor performance is a leading indicator because deliveries slow down when companies are experiencing increased demand for their products. Slower deliveries therefore indicate a future increase in economic activity

New building permits issued. Construction of new buildings is part of investment—a particularly volatile component of GDP. An increase in building permits means that planned construction is increasing, which indicates a rise in overall economic activity

Index of stock prices. The stock market reflects expectations about future economic conditions because stock market investors bid up prices when they expect companies to be profitable. An increase in stock prices indicates that investors expect the economy to grow rapidly; a decrease in stock prices indicates that investors expect an economic slowdown.

Money supply (M2), adjusted for inflation. Because the money supply is related to total spending, more money predicts increased spending, which in turn means higher production and employment.

Interest rate spread: the yield spread between 10-year Treasury notes and 3-month Treasury bills. This spread, sometimes called the slope of the yield curve, reflects the market’s expectation about future interest rates, which in turn reflect the condition of the economy. A large spread means that interest rates are expected to rise, which typically occurs when economic activity increases.

Index of consumer expectations. This is a direct measure of expectations, based on a survey conducted by the University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center. Increased optimism about future economic conditions among consumers suggests increased consumer demand for goods and services, which in turn will encourage businesses to expand production and employment to meet the demand.

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