Julie Jason's Your Money: Which economic trends should investors be following?

By JULIE JASON January 12. 2018 8:08PM


If you are an investor, do you watch economic trends? Some economists believe that being aware of economic trends gives investors an edge. I spoke with economist Simon Constable a few weeks ago to discern how his work might provide some insights and guidance for today's investors.

Constable is co-author of "The Wall Street Journal Guide to the 50 Economic Indicators That Really Matter: From Big Macs to 'Zombie Banks,' the Indicators Smart Investors Watch to Beat the Market."

Constable and his co-author, Robert E. Wright, made a provocative statement in the book, which was written in 2011, a few years after the market bottomed on March 9, 2009: "The financial crisis of 2008-09 and its aftermath suggest that most investors were insufficiently nimble because they were looking at what the economy was rather than what it would become."

They observed: "Discerning the economy's direction - whether it will soar, plummet, or stagnate - may sound difficult, and it certainly isn't easy, but the economy can't help but constantly provide statistical clues about its health."

And they provided a tool chest of 50 indicators for investors to follow.

I asked Constable the obvious question: What do the economic indicators tell us about today? Is there a bear market on the horizon?

Constable advised: "The stock market and economy are related like cousins. They are related, but can be estranged for many years."

So, there won't be simple answers to my questions. That is, the 50 indicators will not provide a clearly defined stock market forecast. Reviewing them will provide insights, however, by watching trends as they develop.

Now, that's quite a bit of work for the everyday investor. Being pragmatic, I asked Constable for a shortcut: Could he identify one, two or three of the most important indicators to follow?

He offered this starting point: The Weekly Leading Index (WLI), developed in the 1980s to take an accurate read "on the future of the entire economy," is published by the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI). The WLI "is a composite leading index that anticipates cyclical turning points in U.S. economic activity by 2-3 quarters," according to ECRI. The inputs include measures of money supply, housing activity, the labor market, and equity and bond market prices.

For this indicator to be meaningful in calling a recession, trend changes need to be "pronounced, persistent and pervasive," explained Constable.

As it says in Constable's book: If "there is a turn in the WLI growth rate that satisfies the three P's, then a recession (or the end of one) can be expected seven to eight months later." When the WLI growth rate is trending up, the economy is growing.

The best way to look at trends is graphically. ECRI provides access to free graphs (with underlying data) online at https://tinyurl.com/ycgbczx2. When you visit this site, look at different time frames.

For an example of this indicator at work, change the dates at the bottom of the graph. Take a look at the end of 2005 through the end of 2009 to pick up economic trends before the financial crisis up to the year the stock market bottomed (March 2009). Zoom out to pick up 1970 through 2017.

Look for warnings as well. At the height of the 2007 market, the November-December 2007 ECRI Outlook cautioned: "The growing weakness in the growth rates of ECRI's leading indexes is a warning that recessionary weakness could develop. One key danger is a sustained credit crunch, because the credit crisis is clearly not over. ... [Our] Leading Index[es are] now approaching [their] worst reading[s] since the 2001 recession. ... Also, the breadth of deterioration evident in the latest data on the components of ECRI's many leading indexes has rarely been seen except near the cusp of a recession."

Returning to today, we are not in a 2007 market, based on economic trends. However, the economy is not the sole arbiter of stock market movements - for one, consider rare but impactful "black swan" events.

In the end, following indicators can help investors evaluate their investments in the context of the broader economic picture.

Julie Jason, JD, LLM, a personal money manager at Jackson, Grant of Stamford, Conn., and award-winning author, welcomes questions and comments to readers@juliejason.com.


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