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In this week’s episode of So What? we focus on understanding economic indicators. We walk through what economic indicators are available and how to extract and use economic indicators for forecasting. Catch the replay here:

So What? Understanding leading economic indicators


In this episode you’ll learn: 

  • What economic indicators are available and where
  • How to extract and use economic indicators for forecasting
  • What decisions you might want to make from leading economic indicators

Upcoming Episodes:

  • TBD

Have a question or topic you’d like to see us cover? Reach out here:

AI-Generated Transcript:

Oh, it’s Thursday.

It’s time for So What, the Trust Insights, marketing, analytics and insights live show this week everyone’s on vacation.

Everyone’s on PTO, which is fine.

So this week, we’re going to talk about economic indicators and how to use them in your marketing.

So let’s get started by talking briefly about what economic indicators are, because obviously, it helps to have some table setting, if you will, an economic indicator is nothing more than a metric.

It’s a measure of some kind some piece of data, typically about the economy, hence economic indicator.

And these are published normally by both government entities and private industry.

So there are any number of private industry shops out there that create economic data that you can download, sometimes for astonishingly high fees there, Moody’s, Morningstar, Bloomberg, etc.

And then of course, there are economic indicator pools that come from governments, for example, the United States government to the St.

Louis Federal Reserve Bank has its Fred database, the EU I know has a huge economic database, the OECD has their database.

And these economic indicators are pieces of data that we can use in our own marketing.

Hi, Courtney, nice to see you on the stream.

There’s two classes of economic indicator, there’s what’s called leading and lagging.

A leading indicator is a type of measure which has some predictive power, it tells you that something’s happening right now in the economy that may affect your business later.

And then a lagging indicator is an indicator where something has happened, and we’re seeing the effects of it.

So a couple of really simple examples.

A leading indicator would be something like producer price index, what companies are paying to make goods, right? If the producer price index goes up, then what happens is that eventually, consumer prices have to go up as well.

So the Consumer Price indicator CPI would be a lagging indicator, and a producer price index in this case would be a leading indicator.

If you wanted to know how much more expensive are things going to get, you would use one of those measures.

Another good one is what’s called the VIX.

The volatility index published by the Chicago Board of options exchanges.
The VIX is a measure of stock market volatility is a proxy measure for how comfortable or uncomfortable investors are.

The bigger the number is, the more uncertain people feel.

The more uncertain people feel, the more likely it is that people will do something rash, sell their stocks, panic, etc.

And those would be things that if you were, say, running an investment house, you probably want to know about.

And so the VIX is a good predictor of other types of economic uncertainty.

So that’s sort of what economic indicators are, let’s talk about where do we get these things? How do we get hold of these things in case that we actually want to use them in our marketing.

The number one source that I will recommend is the St.

Louis Federal Reserve Banks, Fred’s database, go to, Louis

This is a service published by the United States government.

It is applicable mostly to the United States.

But there are a number of data series in here that are useful for just about anybody.

You’ll note that they say you can track up to 817,000 different series from 108 different sources.

So this thing is a massive, massive pool of data.

And you can see they they’re even starting to bring in things like job postings, right, so pulling in data from, so that you can visualize job posting data.

So this is this is my by far my favorite clearing house.

It is totally free to use.

We’ll try we’ll go through how to use it just a bit.

And it is so robust that there’s a good chance if there’s a piece of data you’d like to know about an industry or a topic, chances are they probably have it.

Another one if you want to get specific things like stock prices.

There’s a service called Alpha Vantage, which is a stock API.

And you can get data like individual stocks, some cryptocurrencies, things like that, that it is free to use for an exploratory purposes.

And you can of course, get the paid version if you want some really, really advanced data.

This is good if you’re looking at specific company stock prices, right? If you were here looking at things like cryptocurrency prices for popular cryptocurrencies, this would be the service to use.

So, those be my two favorite data sources.

Again, there are plenty of others.

The OECD has some The EU has some find the data source that fits your industry and your your locale, wherever you’re located.

So with 817,000 different series, which is a lot, one of the ones that I pay attention to, when I’m doing my own economic forecasting, when trying to figure out for example, answering the question, are we in a recession or not? There’s probably about a dozen different economic series that I think are super useful.

So let’s take a look at let’s go through a few of these.

The first one is the VIX.

Let’s go back to Fred.

Here we go.

So again, this is the volatility index.

Fred’s interface is very, very straightforward to use.

You have your little time series indicator for how far back you want to look one year, five year 10 years or all time, most series, go back to at least 2000.

If not into the 90 some series like the Dow Jones, for example.

It goes back to like the 1930s, or something like that.

The VIX, you can see here, there’s, you can see the spikes.

And then these gray bars indicate periods of recession.

And there’s just a lot of up and down volatility.

Of course, here.

This is the start of the COVID 19 pandemic volatility was really high.

This is the start of the Great Recession.

This is, boom and bust here.

And just shoot purely by eyeballing it, you can tell.

Yeah, as of right now, and this sort of period, post pandemic period.

I mean, we’re still in in two pandemics, but a lot of people seem to think is over.
You can see that just in general, volatility has been higher than it was in the 10 years.

Previously, there’s just more volatility.

And you’ll note, there are even big spikes around big global events, big macro events, you’ll be able to see spikes when you dig into the data.

Let’s take a look here at the one year right around when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Right, you can see volatility went really high up and recently things seem to be settling down, as well.

So that’s the VIX.

I like this index for helping you understand.

We’re in an event where investors heads right so if your company if your marketing is reliant on publicly traded companies, this is a good way to see like, how is the market overall feeling.

The next one is, again, another basic favorite CPI, the Consumer Price Index, if you market to retail, if you market to the to the consumer, if you’re a B2C company, CPI is a really important number, what you’ll notice is that the CPI readiness measures are benchmarks.

So the period between 82 and 84 is sort of benchmark because that’s when we’re they’re calling it you know, 100.

So everything that happens after that is a multiple of 100.

So let’s look at CPI.

For the last year, the Consumer Price Index, as of June and July of 2022.

CPI is at 295.

That means that on average, prices today are almost three times the prices that they were in 1982 to 1984.

That’s how you read that number.

It is seasonally adjusted, which means it accounts for ebbs and flows.

What we see here is crazy levels of inflation, right? So we had a decent amount of inflation all really in the last 10 years.

You can see how fast inflation has been growing.

But then right around here.

Right, once you the pandemic started, you see inflation really taking off.

What’s behind that? Well, one of the things that is behind that is the money supply.

And this is true globally.

This is not just the United States.

This is this is globally.

In those first months of 2020, the United States Government magically made about $4 trillion just appear out of nowhere, right? We just printed $4 trillion.

Well, what’s the logical consequence of just creating a lot more money? The logical consequence is you get a lot of inflation, right? When you print money, you are inflating the currency and that effect is what’s creating this so when We’re talking about the consumer, and what consumers can buy the power, purchasing power their dollar.

CPI tells us that is getting whittled away really, really fast, right? It’s, the price has gone up.

So from about two and a half times, in the pedantic down to almost three times, right? So we’re as people, we’re losing ground.
For forecasting purposes, if you’re doing stuff like market mix modeling, and things, this might be a very useful indicator to show our external factors like inflation, chipping away at your marketing effectiveness, right.

So if you’re, if you’re marketing, you’re putting things in advertisements.

Having this data in your modeling, and we’ll talk about that a little bit later, could be very useful.

Another valuable index is the producer price index.

So producer price index is what companies are paying for commodities to do business, right.

So what if you manufactured cars? What are you paying for steel? If you manufacture foods, what would you be paying, you know, farmers.

And again, if we just look at the last 10 years, since the start of the pandemic, we have seen the cost that companies pay again, we’re benchmarks to 1982, as the as the level here, has gone really, really high.

And it’s actually a bigger jump for companies than it is for consumers.

At the April 2020, we were at less than 2x, the producer price index.

And now, as of June, we’re almost at 3x.

So companies costs are very, very, very high.

What does this tell us? For B2B marketers.

The producer price index tells you how your B2B clients are doing.

If your B2B clients are manufacturing stuff, right? Like their their costs have gone crazy, which means that it might be harder to sell to your companies to your your customers, because they just aren’t their margins have gotten smaller, they are essentially paying a whole lot more money, just to get business done.

I think it’s safe to say that in the last two years, a lot of B2B companies, ours included, have seen people take longer to make decisions, sales cycles have lengthened the number of decision makers has has increased, things like that.

So it’s it’s a good indicator.

There’s a category of economic indicators I like in shipping.

So shipping is a really useful, I think, measure of the economy that are good leading indicators.

And the reason for this is that unlike a lot of speculative things like stock prices, or cryptocurrencies, or whatever, shipping only happens when you’ve got goods and services to move, right when you need to move stuff from point A to point B by a truck or boat or plane.

Therefore, when you look at how shipping, how much shipping is going on, you can get a real sense for what the real state of the economy is.

I have found that shipping is a very good proxy for like holiday retail seasons, right, what a retailer stocking up on how much are they stocking up on? It is a good proxy for understanding Hey, the economy’s you know, the supply chain is kind of a bit of a mess right now.

And it’s a good proxy for understanding like where what is economic activity look like.

So shipping is benchmarked at 2015.

So 2015 is the level is the 100 number.

Let’s take a look at the last five years, we can see that shipping was increasing pretty steadily for trucks.

So this is truck tonnage in the United States.

And then of course, pandemic hits, things basically get back knocked back almost to 2015.

And it really took a you know, it really took till mid 2021 for things to start growing again.

So from a manufacturing perspective and a supply chain perspective, we’re we’re clawing our way back to, you know, sort of 2018 2019 levels.

We’re not back to,
you know, the peak of 2019 when you saw a ton of shipping activity, but this does tell us that the economic recovery is pretty well underway.

Another one that is, I think, interesting is internal waterway tonnage.

So this is shipping on boats internally within the United States.

Now there’s another index it’s not included in here called the Baltic Dry Index, which is container pricing but waterways I find it least for when you’re looking at United States data is also pretty good indicator you can see here.

This one doesn’t have any.

A benchmark index this one just has the Wall, number of tons of stuff being shipped.

And you can see that there are ups and downs.

Obviously there’s the really big down here and in the pandemic.

Notice here, even though the pandemic started in really March, April, we didn’t see that hit bottom till June.

Why? Because this stuff is, is it, the consumer demand dropped off, and then the flow effects, the downstream effects hit that industry a few months later.

And then of course, it’s it’s slowly coming back, we can see here in 2022, things are close to back to normal.

So that is the shipping category.

One that is relevant to all of us, that we all do enjoy is food and beverage.

So food and beverage, a lot of inflation indexes, remove food and beverage from them, because it’s considered volatile.

Right? Yeah, there’s a lot more volatility than there are other things to measure inflation.

The challenge that I have with that assumption is that people spend money on food and beverage, right.

So if you’re trying to see where the consumer is, and what’s happening to the consumer, you’ve got to include food and beverage, and energy and things like that.

So let’s look at the last 10 years of inflation for just for food and beverage.

You can see, as soon as the US government started the printing presses and just created an extra $4 trillion.

There’s immediate short term bump, a big part of that was also increased demand.

Because if you remember, in the first few months of the pandemic, when we were all, you know, almost planet wide on lockdown.

What do we do, right, we watched a lot of Netflix, we add we ordered a lot of food, because there wasn’t a whole lot else to do that was safe.

And then you see the effects.

As of you know, this year where we’re demand levels of very, very high, and we have some supply chain constraints that are causing inflation to really go crazy for food and beverage.

So if you are trying to sell in the food and beverage category, obviously, this is a very important number.

But also, if you’re selling to consumers, this is important because this is eating away at what consumers have available.

spend another one we will go through this one here, but gasoline is a good one.

Particularly if you are anywhere in the auto supply chain price of gasoline is a huge number to keep an eye on it’s it’s a great leading indicator for demand because as gas prices go up, so do so does obviously demand for cars, particularly certain types of cars go down.

Electric vehicles, for example, tend to do better.

A counter indicator one that is can be very interesting to look at is the price of let’s see, this is in here, gold.

So the price of gold itself can be a useful benchmark for understanding where people feel like kind of safety net, they feel like it’s happening in the market.

So when when people panic, as one goes to the other, it’s good Maxim.

When people panic, the price of gold tends to go up because they they think that it’s a safe haven for their money.

You can see here every time there’s a really big recessionary cycle, you see that the price of gold goes really really high.

This is an ETF but you can get the raw price of gold as well.

So again, if you’re trying to measure investor confidence, a gold price is a is a good way to do that.

Now, let’s talk about jobs.

Jobs is a very, very important category for all of us.

One indicator is called the initial claims initial jobless claims when people file for unemployment for the first time after a period of employment.

This category the pandemic threw for a wild wild swings when you had this huge massive layoff in early April 2020.

It’s actually so big, such a big distortion that a lot of forecasts, it’s a good idea to exclude that.
Looking at just the last year’s worth of data, you can see the initial jobless claims have reached lows of 168,000.

If we zoom back out here that we are currently now at nearly all time lows for jobless claims.

Well, what does that mean? That means that people are employed, that means that the price to hire is much higher than it has been.

Our candidate pool is much smaller because a lot of people are working which is good for the economy.

It’s good for people to be able to obviously earn income.

It is tough if you are trying to hire when You look at sort of the four week moving average of jobless claims, you can really see that just how much pressure employers are under right, we have a lot of difficulty finding people.

There’s a whole series from what’s called jolts job openings and labor turnover survey.

This series tells us how many job positions are open, and we’re looking at the last almost 20 shields against the last 10 years, you can see that there was pretty steady numbers of job openings up until the beginning of the pandemic, the pandemic took a hatchet job to everything and then that upset the applecart substantially and change the labor pool.

And now we are at nearly all time highs for just having open positions, right.

So if you are a job seeker, this is good news for you.

If you are just recently updated your LinkedIn profile, this is good news for you.

If you are a company a hiring this is really bad news, because it means that we are all competing very, very heavily for talent.

And we talked previously in on one of the Trust Insights podcasts about looking at non traditional talent pools.

And this is the clear indicator that that’s an avenue I think a lot of people need to go down, which is looking at pools of people that may not have experience in the field that you’re hiring for and being willing to train them looking people like returning mothers, people who are returning to the returning parents to the workforce looking at military veterans who have just exited from the service, you’re going to need to dig around and find capable humans.

And because of just how tight the job situation is.

Another useful indicator is what it costs just sort of rent.

So if we look at Rent, seasonally adjusted to 1982 rent prices, right now in major US cities are almost 3.7 times higher than they were in the 80s.

Right and this number, if you look carefully, you’ll notice that it’s seeing the inflation effects to mid 20s, when you want, rent is just going up really, really, really high.

Again, this takes dollars out of consumers pocket, but more expensive rent is, the harder it is for people to spend money and also it limits talent pools for companies.

So again, from a hiring perspective, this data tells you that you probably want to have a hybrid workforce so that people can live not in super high rent areas, if possible, and you’ll still be able to afford talent.

Otherwise, you’re in for a bit of a crunch.

The last set of indicators that I think are really useful are there’s economic indicators for individual industries.

So there may be an industry depending on your company that looks at what’s happening.

So let’s take a look at the Producer Price Index for consulting.

So Trust Insights, we’re a consulting firm.

What this is saying is that the price for consulting firms has gone up really, really high at Crazy record heights since mid about early 21 is when prices just went off the charts.

So for a company like us, we can look at this and say, Well, you know, we are now at 27% higher costs than just 15 years ago.

And from a year ago, we are looking at 20% increased surprises.

If as we are looking at our pricing for the coming year.

from a market perspective, we could look at this and go wow, if we want to remain competitively priced with our industry competitors, we might need to look at adjusting our prices to incorporate that 20% increase right to so that we don’t seem like we’re too inexpensive, you may want to do the same thing looking at if you’re a B2B company, if you’re are some kind of professional services firm, you may want to look at this number go gosh, we
might need to increase our prices.

Another number is you can look at the number of employees within your industry.

You can see that consulting not only rehired the people that have been hiring but hired a lot more.

So this tells us that there’s been a ton of hiring in the sector, which again explains can be explained by the increases in fees.

And you can even get aggregates and I believe these are somewhat time delayed.

But you can get aggregates for how much revenue companies are earning isn’t generally in a sector to see like here’s a 2009 the data for this comes from the Census Bureau and so it’s going to be a little while for them to get this updated, but you can see that it Mmm, prices in consulting have gone up considerably.

So that’s a sort of a tour of my favorite leading economic indicators.

Here’s the question now, how do you actually make use of this data? How do you take it out of these systems and and put it to use? Well, there’s a couple of ways to do this is, I would say, three ways to do this.

The first for everybody, regardless of skill level, find a series you care about, right, and just hit the download button on here.

And you can download a one time snapshot of the data as you’ve arranged to here, put it into a spreadsheet, put it into a PowerPoint, chart, whatever.

And, again, very useful, very easy.

This is something that I think is very helpful if you’re trying to put together a presentation to your stakeholders to say like, here’s why our costs have gone up so much, because then you show them the appropriate charts.

That’s the simplest, easiest, no tools, no technical skills required, just hit the buttons and make things happen.

The second way is, you’ll notice that the Fred service allows you to connect its data to its data through what are called API’s application programming interfaces.

If you sign up for a free access key with it, you can then take that resource.

And you can, let’s go ahead and edit this, you can actually connect to Fred’s database within a tool like Google Data Studio.

So if you want to bring in series data, you can connect through their free API, and bring in any kind of economic data into Data Studio.

So you can put it side by side next to other reports.

The third way is to have the data in some kind of live export.

So they’re, again, they’re really good tools.

Tableau Software, is one such tool like Data Studio.

The our programming environment, which is where I do most of my work, again, allows you to just plug right in and manipulate the data directly.

I like visual tools like Tableau a lot, particularly for exploring data, because the raw data is kind of tough to look at.

And sometimes you want to do comparisons, sometimes you gotta be able to look at individual suits, or having something like all the data brought into Tableau from multiple series allows you to see the big picture of what’s going on.

This is the last 22 years worth of data from a whole bunch of different indicators.

You can see there’s like a whole bunch of extra noise here.

If this is, of course, the big dislocation that happened in April 2020.

Then you can go through and choose any of the individual numbers and see what’s going on with it.

So this, for example, is the price of Brent crude oil, let’s go down to week number here.

Brent crude oil, if you’re not familiar, it’s the price of a barrel of oil.

And generally speaking, it’s pretty safe bet that whatever the price of a barrel of oil is, if you divide it by roughly three or four, depending on on where you live, you’re gonna get the price per gallon in the United States and adjust that obviously, to price per liter in whatever currency for the rest of the world that uses metric.

You can see here that back in June of this year, we hit an all time high of $95 per barrel, and no surprise back then, gas prices were close to $5 a gallon, right.

So really, really high prices.

And we can see this reflected here in in the data.
Again, this is this is an excellent leading economic indicator, because you know what the price per barrel is, you know that in four to six weeks.

Normally for the for the refining industry, that’s what the price of the at the pump is going to be.

So if you know that things are on a downswing right now, you can see, okay, why I know what’s going to happen, when, for example, a hurricane comes through here in the United States.

It can throw production, substantial production delays, that can increase the price, the not only the time delay, but also the price per barrel, because you’re running into extraction issues.

And that, of course, creates higher gas prices down the road.

So that’s a couple a couple of easy ways.

And one not so easy way to get the data out of a system like Fred.

Now, here’s the question.

What do we do with this information? At the most basic level, when you’re looking at things like jobs, or when you’re looking at things like the number of employees in an industry, or you’re looking at the amount of freight that’s being shipped When you talk to your customers, when you talk to their customers, if you B2B, ask them what things keep them up at night, what things are challenging them, and then see if you can find economic indicators in that supply chain that let you be more proactive and be more predictive.

Let’s say you have a company that is a company that makes cars, right? What are the what’s the supply chain for cars, there’s things like rubber, there’s things like CPU and chip prices, there’s things like steel, there’s things like fabrics and cloth.

If you pull together, maybe four of those supply chain things, and you put them in a chart or a workbook like this, you could take a look at what’s happening upstream for your company for your customer and say, Hey, this price spikes happening here here and hear that means that in three months, six months, whatever, we’re going to see higher prices or reduced capacity at our company.

And so you can immediately begin to forecast this stuff and get ahead of disruptions that other people aren’t paying attention to.

That’s the thing about leading economic indicators, if you understand your supply chain, and the metrics from these economic indicators that feed your supply chain, you can predict what’s going to happen before other people know it, right, you can know what’s going to happen because a cost increase or decrease upstream naturally is going to flow downstream.

Look for series that are in your industry specifically or that affect a certain type of customer, if you know that you have a certain type of customers, for example, one of our customers is a company that makes that does stuff around cars, right? So price of gasoline, very, very important.

When the price of gasoline goes up, people get much more interested in our clients services.

So we keep an eye on this right and keep an eye on your, your your price of gas, your price of oil and stuff like that and understand, okay, if gas goes above a certain number, people are going to be very interested in what the what our client has to offer as often an offset.

So it’s an indicator, it’s a way for them to spin up marketing campaigns to say like, Hey, if you are interested in saving some money, check out our product or service.

For example, you can see gas prices, the United States, scaled reached a peak in at the end of May, and is slowly starting to come down.

But it’s still very, very high historically.

And finally, if you have
very, very sophisticated attribution modeling or marketing mix modeling, there are ways to bring in some of this data into your marketing mix models themselves, these models will allow you to say like I care about, I know these indicators are probably going to be impactful.

Let’s bring this in and see if it impacts our marketing mix.


So example is Facebook has a marketing mix modeler.

And one of the things I bring into it for is that vix number, the investor confidence number, when investor confidence is going the wrong way.

Does it change the behavior of of people who are looking at Trust Insights, products and services? The answer, thankfully, at least when I ran it earlier today is no it has a very minimal impact on on what people are looking for our services, but you could clearly see that there are some industries where that would be a major contributor, right? If maybe you’re doing cryptocurrency stuff, or maybe just doing regular stock investing, if investor confidence is down, you’re going to see that play out in the market.

And if you can accommodate for that, then you can change your marketing mix model to say, okay, when when this is down, when the investor conference is down, let’s pull back on our ad spend, or maybe we turn up our ad spend depending on depending on what your customers are interested in.

So, to recap, economic indicators can offer a lot of value in terms of predicting what’s likely to happen, especially if you understand your supply chain well, especially if you know what indicators matter most to your business and your customers.

Most of the data that you could want not all but but most is available for free from services like the OECD, the St.

Louis Federal Reserve Bank, the EU chances are whatever your government’s central bank is, as long as they’re trustworthy.

The data is probably available to you for a while.

It’s not free your tax dollars paying for it.

Pick indicators that are good for your industry, and then export the data into systems that you have control over.

That you can use to either just make general assessments about what’s happening in the in the economy, what’s happening to your customers, or at the most sophisticated level build into marketing mix models, and attribution models as a way of saying these things may be increasing or depressing our ability to get great results from our marketing efforts.

So that’s the show for this week.

Hope you enjoyed it.

Next week.

I believe everybody should be back.

So it’ll be back to more of the Three Stooges.

If you’ve got comments or questions, you know, hit us up here or in the slack group.

Have a think about that shortly.

But thanks for tuning in today.

I’ll talk to you soon.

Thanks for watching today, be sure to subscribe to our show wherever you’re watching it.

For more resources.

And to learn more, check out the Trust Insights podcast at trust AI podcast, and a weekly email newsletter at trust Got questions about what you saw on today’s episode? Join our free analytics for markers slack group at trust for marketers See you next time.

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