Economic Indicator Glossary

The following is an economic indicator glossary. It’s important for our traders to know and understand market terminology. Comprehension is vital when interpreting Fundamental news and analysis.

Auto Sales

The number of cars sold during a particular ten-day period. The timeliness of this indicator (released three days after the 10-day period) makes this the most current piece of US economic data. The size of the item in question and the timeliness of the release allow auto sales to be a useful leading indicator of retail sales and personal consumption expenditures data.

Balance of Payments

Complete summary of a nation’s economic transactions and the rest of the world including merchandise, services, financial assets and tourism. The balance of payments is separated into two main accounts: the current account and the capital account.

Balance of Trade (Merchandise Trade Balance)

The difference between a nation’s exports and imports of merchandise. A positive balance of trade, or a surplus, occurs when a county’s exports exceed its imports. A negative balance of trade, or a deficit, occurs when imports surpass exports. Rising exports add to GDP while falling imports are subtracted from it. The US merchandise trade balance has been in a deficit since the mid-1970s. Rising deficits can be reflective of increased consumption, which can be a sign of a strengthening economy.

Beige Book Fed Survey

Officially known as the Survey on Current Economic Conditions, the Beige Book, is published eight times per year by a Federal Reserve Bank, containing anecdotal information on current economic and business conditions in its District through reports from Bank and Branch directors, and interviews with key business contacts, economists, market experts, and other sources. The Beige Book highlights the activity information by District and sector. The survey normally covers a period of about 4-weeks in duration, and is released two weeks prior to each FOMC meeting, which is also held eight times per year. While being deemed by some as a lagging report, the Beige Book has usually served as a helpful indicator to FOMC policy decisions on monetary policy.

Business Inventories and Sales

Business inventories and sales figures consist of data from other reports such as durable goods orders, factory orders, retail sales, and wholesale inventories and sales data. Inventories are an important component of the GDP report because they help distinguish which part of total output produced (GDP) remained unsold. As a result, this presents us with important clues on the future direction of the economy. Before computerization allowed companies to trim inventories and use minimal stock on hand, inventory build up was indicative of falling demand and potentially a recession.

Capital Account

(now known as Financial Account) Records a nation’s incoming and outgoing investment flows such as payments for entire or parts of companies (direct or portfolio investment), stocks, bonds, bank accounts, real estate and factories. The balance of payments is influenced by many factors, including the financial and economic climate of other countries. See Current Account

CBI Surveys

Britain’s largest organization of business employers, aims at creating and sustaining favourable conditions for their optimal competition and prosperity. The CBI publishes monthly and quarterly surveys, on past, current and future assessments on the manufacturing and services sectors. The indexes reflect respondents’ views on various items such as, output, sales, prices, inventories, and export/import orders.

Construction Spending

Construction spending measures the value of construction during the course of a particular month.

Consumer Price Index (CPI)

Measures the change in prices at the consumer level for a fixed basket of goods and services paid for by a typical consumer. Items included in the CPI reflect prices of food, clothing, shelter, fuels, transportation, health care and all other goods and services that people buy for day-to-day living. These items are divided into seven categories (housing, food, transportation, medical care, apparel, entertainment, and other), each of which is weighted by their relative importance. As in the case with the PPI, markets focus on the figure excluding food and energy items (called the core CPI) for a truer picture of inflationary forces. Since food and energy prices could fluctuate due to conditions that are unrelated to the economy–such as weather, oil supply or wars– it is important to break down the factors impacting the change in prices.

Current Account

The most important part of international trade data. It is the broadest measure of sales and purchases of goods, services, interest payments and unilateral transfers. The entire merchandise trade balance is contained in the current account. See Capital Account

Durable Goods Orders

These include large ticket items such as capital goods (machinery, plant and equipment), transportation and defence orders. They are extremely important in that they anticipate changes in production and thus, signal turns in the economic cycle.

But the large size of these items (aircraft and civilian orders) means that they present equally large changes, which makes them extremely volatile. This also give rise to sizable revisions in the subsequent periods once more complete data become available one week later. Durable goods data are better used when omitting defense orders and transportation orders, while calculating a three-month moving average, and a year-to-year percent change.

Employment Cost Index (ECI)

Published quarterly, ECI measures changes in employment costs of money wages and salaries and non-cash benefits in non-farm industries. One of its major strengths is its ability to break down the changes in wages and benefits as part of total compensation, as well as its ability to point out the growth rate in these variables. Its superiority over other pay measures is also the inclusion of both hourly and salaried workers, and its breakdown by profession, industry and region. The ECI does not include federal government workers.

Employment Report

In the US, the employment report, also known as the labour report, is regarded as the most important among all economic indicators. Usually released on the first Friday of the month, the report provides the first comprehensive look at the economy, covering nine economic categories. Here are the 3 main components of the report: Payroll Employment: Measures the change in number of workers in a given month. It is important to compare this figure to a monthly moving average (6 or 9 months) so as to capture a true perspective of the trend in labour market strength. Equally important are the frequent revisions for the prior months, which are often significant.

Unemployment Rate: The percentage of the civilian labour force actively looking for employment but unable to find jobs. Although it is a highly proclaimed figure (due to simplicity of the number and its political implications ), the unemployment rate gets relatively less importance in the markets because it is known to be a lagging indicator–It usually falls behind economic turns. Average Hourly Earnings Growth: The growth rate between one month’s average hourly rate and another’s sheds light on wage growth and, hence, assesses the potential of wage-push inflation. The year-on-year rate is also important in capturing the longer-term trend.

Factory Orders and Manufacturing Inventories

In many respects this report is a rehash of the durable goods release that became available a week earlier. However, the factory orders report merits review because it also contains data on orders and shipments of nondurable goods, manufacturing inventories, and the inventory/sales ratio. Order data are useful because they tell us something about the likely pace of production in the months ahead. They are extremely volatile and can fluctuate by three or four percentage points in any given month. They are subject to sizable revisions and are very difficult to forecast.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP)

Measures the market value of goods and services produced in a country, regardless of the nationality of the firm owning these resources. There are four major components of the GDP are: consumption, investment, government purchases, and net exports. The headline figure is the quarterly release of the percentage growth over the previous quarter (q/q) or year (y/y). The GDP report has three releases: i) advanced release (first); ii) preliminary release (1st revision); and iii) final release (2nd and last revision). These revisions usually have a substantial impact on the markets. Also see Implicit Deflator

Housing Starts / Building Permits

Starts are divided into single-family and multifamily categories. In both cases, a housing unit is considered “started” when excavation actually begins. The importance of the housing sector lies in its ability to trigger economic turnarounds, presaging changes in growth. Changes in interest rates, especially mortgage rates usually impact housing. Rising interest rates result in a decline for home sales which, which in turn produces a drop in starts. Conversely, lower rates tend to spur both housing sales and starts.


Germany’s leading survey of business conditions. Published monthly by the Institute for Economic Research, one of the largest economic think tanks in Germany, the IFO Business Climate Index is a widely followed leading indicator of economic activity known for its track record in calling economic turns in German economic growth. The index surveys over 7,000 enterprises on their assessment of the current business situation and their resulting plans for the short-term. In addition to this aforementioned headline index, there is the Current Situation Index and Federal Reserve Bank.

Implicit Deflator

Measures the inflationary component of the GDP report. It reflects price changes between periods and changes in spending patterns.

Index of Leading Economic Indicators (LEI)

The LEI is a composite of 10 different indicators, designed to predict future aggregate economic activity. The Index usually reaches peaks and troughs earlier than the overall economic cycle, which makes it an important tool for forecasting and planning. The LEI’s individual components are selected from various sectors of the economy, including manufacturing, building, financial, retail and consumer variables. The components were chosen because of their economic relevance and statistical adequacy. They are weighted equally to provide a net contribution to the composite index. The specific leading indicators – selected from various sectors of the economy – include the following: the average work week, weekly jobless claims, manufacturers’ new orders for consumer goods and materials, vendor performance, contracts and orders for new plant and equipment, building permits, stock prices (S&P500), interest rate spread of 10-year Treasury note minus federal funds rate, money supply (M2), and consumer expectations index.

Markets rarely react to the LEI.

Industrial Production and Capacity Utilization

Industrial production measures the monthly percentage change in volume of output of the nation’s factories, mines, and utilities.

Capacity utilization measures the extent to which the capital stock is employed in production. The Federal Reserve, provider of the index, defines Capacity as the maximum level of production that can be obtained using a normal employee work schedule, with existing equipment, and normal downtime for maintenance, repair, and cleanup. This normal figure lies between 81% and 83%. A greater number may lead to higher prices (PPI), which could prove to be inflationary.

National Association of Purchasing Managers (NAPM)

This is leading survey on US manufacturing activity, arranged by the National Association of Purchasing Management (NAPM). The report is released on the first working day of the month, providing the first detailed look at the manufacturing sector before the release of the all-important employment report.

Highly valued for its timeliness and breadth of information, the headline figure is a function of six major components: prices paid; new orders; supplier deliveries; production, inventories and employment. Note that the latter three components reflect supply forces, while the former three cover demand forces. Watching the relative trend of these two groups (demand and supply) sheds light on the balance between demand and supply forces, and hence, provides insight on the Federal Reserve’s policy decisions since they lend much importance to these balances. The Prices Paid component is widely watched because it assesses price pressures ahead in the sector. A figure of 50 or above indicates expansion in the sector, while a number below 50 suggest a contraction.

New Home Sales

Monthly data new home sales data are released for the nation as a whole and for four geographical areas – the Northeast, the Midwest, the South, and the West. The report also contains information on home prices, and number of houses for sale. Housing is a crucial segment of the economy because it signals changes in consumer spending patterns that are indicative of economic activity. Volatility and revisions, however, are common in the report.

Personal Income and Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE)

Personal Spending, also known as PCE, represents the change in the market value of all goods and services purchased by individuals. It is the largest component of GDP. Personal income represents the change in compensation that individuals receive from all sources including: wages and salaries; proprietors’ income; income from rents; dividends and interest; and transfer payments (Social Security, unemployment, and welfare benefits). The release of these two figures gives you the savings rate, which is the difference between disposable income (personal income minus taxes) and consumption, divided by disposable income. The ever-declining savings rate has become a key indicator to watch as it signals consumer spending patterns.

Producer Price Index (PPI)

Measures the monthly change in wholesale prices and is broken down by commodity, industry and stage of production. It is an accurate precursor of the important Consumer Prices Index (CPI) figure. Markets usually focus on the PPI excluding volatile food and energy items (called the core rate) for a truer picture of inflationary forces.


Quarterly measure of the change in the amount of goods and services produced per unit of input. It incorporates labour and capital inputs. The unit cost of labour component is a useful indicator of any emerging wage pressures. The importance of productivity has grown over the past few years since the Federal Reserve has begun attributing its growth trend to relatively low levels of inflation.

Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI)

The Index is widely used by industrialized economies to assess business confidence. Germany, Japan and the UK use PMI surveys for both manufacturing and services industries. The numbers are arrived at through a series of questions regarding Business activity, New Business, Employment, Input Prices, Prices Charged and Business Expectations. In addition to the headline figures, the prices paid components is highly scrutinized by the markets for evaluating pricing power and inflationary risks. Also see National Association of Purchasing Managers (NAPM)

Retail Sales

Measures the percentage monthly change in total receipts of retail stores, and includes both durable and nondurable goods. It is the first real indication of the strength of consumer expenditure. The limits of the retail sales figure, however, lie in the fact that it focuses on goods while ignoring services and other items such as insurance and legal fees. In addition, the report is stated in nominal terms rather than real, thus, not accounting for inflation. The retail sales figure is also subject to sizable revisions, even when excluding auto sales (core retail sales).

Tankan Survey

Japan’s chief business survey, compiled quarterly by the Bank of Japan. It consists of a questionnaire to manufacturing and non-manufacturing firms, both large and small. The survey consists of two major parts; the “judgment survey,” asking businesses about their situation in the previous, current and following quarters on macro-economic variables, business conditions, inventory levels, capacity utilization levels and employment level. The other main part is related to “current management issues” confronting companies. The headline index is the diffusion index of business conditions, calculated by subtracting the number of businesses saying conditions are “bad”, from the number of businesses saying conditions are “good”.