Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

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Fun economic indicators, from fireworks to freight

June 21, 2013

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A sign above this Oklahoma fireworks stand reminds customers that there's no smoking. Photo: Matt Grimm

However, slowly, the economic tide seems to be turning lately — or pundits are just weary of writing doom-and-gloom scenarios — because words like optimism are cropping up in business stories about the American economy, from U.S. News & World Report to Marketwatch to the New York Times.

With that in mind, how can you find local measure that might indicate how businesses and consumers in your regional economy are faring? You can use traditional statistics — the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics just released advance figures on gross domestic product by state for 2012, which will help you illustrate trends since the Great Recession.

Or, you could have some fun and look at what we like to call “quirky economic indicators” — metrics that reflect trends in everyday activities from shipping to cosmetics purchases, and that are used to a greater or lesser degree by analysts, economists and prognosticators.  Lots of interesting info is coming out in reports from national trade associations, for example, and you can localize a few of these reports to get a snapshot of activity levels in your market.

The American Trucking Association is out this week with a new report that says truck freight tonnage jumped 2.3 percent in May, compared to April, and posted the highest level on record.  The measure of freight-hauling activity was up 6.7 percent over May 2012.  The organization’s chief economist said “heavy loads” such as construction materials and items used for fracking are outpacing “box trailer” cargo.  Why not contact trucking companies in your area about what’s coming and going at the wholesale and retail level, compared to a year ago?

In related news, intermodal rail traffic was up last week as well, according to the American Association of Railroads, though carloads were down.  I’m not sure how to interpret that but you can find economists, supply chain experts and rail industry spokespersons who will; the AAR also offers quite a bit of economic and statistical data on its website.  Similarly, check in with shippers — here’s a NASDAQ article about why UPS activity is a good leading indicator.   The U.S. Department of Transportation’s research units also are good sources of information; here’s an article about the freight transportation services index.

Now it starts to get a little more offbeat.  Here’s an article about trash as an economic indicator; specifically waste traveling by rail and how it tracks the GDP.  Anecdotally I’ve noticed a lot more commercial dumpsters out and about lately, and this spring’s bulk trash removal in my city featured the sort of useful discards not seen since the start of the recession; have people started to shop for new furniture and appliances again?  Check with municipal and commercial garbage services, mattress haul-away companies, landfills, etc. — is the quality of trash going up?

And here’s a Marketplace.com article about even more oddball indicators; I am not sure if hemlines and lipstick still hold true but especially like the one about sales of home décor magazines; that seems to make sense.  You could also check thrift and resale shops — are sales waning?  And with the Fourth of July coming up, how do fireworks sales reflect consumers’ moods?

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