The New Economic Indicators

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This story appears in the March 2009 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Want to know When the economy will improve? You can rely on the usual economic forecasts or look to other more offbeat indicators, such as sales figures at key retailers or new public-opinion polls.

The traditional bellwether for this type of forecasting is the index of leading U.S. economic indicators--an amalgam of trends derived from 10 statistics, including manufacturers' orders, supplier deliveries, unemployment claims, stock prices and consumer expectations. But here's a shortcut: Just look at Wal-Mart, Starbucks and FedEx.

As the economy worsens, it appears more families are seeking goods at the low-price leader's cavernous stores: Wal-Mart sales have risen nearly every month since the economy began floundering last fall. On the flip side, U.S. sales at upscale latte purveyor Starbucks have steadily declined along with FedEx's overnight package volume.

Read the signs

When Wal-Mart sales go up, Starbucks sales go down and people send fewer FedEx overnight packages, the economy may be in trouble. Watch these indicators for signs of a recovery.

Another way to take the economy's pulse is to watch the betting on the busy Intrade Prediction Markets, where $120 million changed hands during the U.S. presidential race, showing Barack Obama with a substantial lead from early on. At Intrade, investors buy contracts that essentially bet on whether an event will occur. The contract pays $100 if the prediction turns out to be true, zero if it doesn't. Last fall, contracts on whether the U.S. economy would be in a recession in 2009 were selling for $90 a share on Intrade; in other words, investors considered it very likely.

But a new daily opinion poll offered a glimmer of hope for economic recovery. In January, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index began surveying a demographic cross section of 1,000 Americans each day, asking them how much they are worrying. By mid-November, the index started to show positive trends with more people saying they felt mostly happy and not stressed.

Is Idaho the next Silicon Valley?
Add Idaho to your list of high-tech hot spots. Digital buds have sprouted from its crop of spuds, almost literally: Investment-savvy potato farmers seeded the state's booming tech industry beginning in the late 1970s. Idaho now does nearly $3 billion annually in semiconductor business. Terry Byington of the American Electronics Association says, "Idaho is one of those up-and-coming states [with] a real future in the tech industry."

By Dennis Romero

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